ZoEmail Has Zero Tolerance for Spam

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted April 29, 2004

If you're tired of spam and spam-borne viruses — and who isn't — ZoEmail, a New York-based start-up launched earlier this year, has an ingenious if ever so slightly flawed solution.

It doesn't cost very much — $11.88 a year for regular service with 12 MB of storage or $19.08 for 50 MB. ZoEmail does, however, take a little extra work to manage and you pretty much have to commit to it for all your e-mailing to get the full benefit.

Also, forget receiving the occasional serendipitous message from a long-lost buddy. It won't get through with ZoEmail.

It's worth noting too that ZoEmail is a browser-based solution and you can't yet access your account using a POP e-mail client such as Outlook or Outlook Express — although this feature is coming, the company says.

How ZoEmail Works
The ZoEmail technology, developed by AT&T Labs, borrows from encryption technology the notion of a unique key, which identifies a message to the system as coming from a legitimate sender.

Your ZoEmail address is ultimately different for each person who sends you mail.

It consists of a conventional user ID and domain name, with the ZoEmail key, an alpha-numeric string, wedged in before the @ sign — eg. gerryblackwell.rcu99llp@zoemail.com, "rcu99llp" being the key.

The system automatically assigns randomly generated keys to legitimate correspondents and stores them in a look-up table. If an incoming message does not include a valid key, the system discards it, assuming it's spam.

One problem, of course, is how do you get your correspondents to use the special e-mail address with key?

ZoEmail solves this by automatically assigning keys to everybody in your ZoEmail Address Book, which you can populate at start-up by importing an existing address book or by inputting new contacts.

The import utility can bring in native Outlook (but not Outlook Express), Pine, Mulberry and vCard books. Or you can convert other address books to a tab- or comma-separated text files and import the text file.

When you send an e-mail from the Address Book, ZoEmail automatically appends the valid return address with that person's unique key. You don't have to remember it, and nor does your correspondent — they can just hit Reply or add the new address with key to their address book.

You can have the system e-mail every person in your book informing them you've changed e-mail addresses and giving them their unique code.

You can also assign group or open keys — identifiers that are easy for you to remember but hard for spammers to guess — and give them out over the phone or at trade shows, or even put them on business cards.

When somebody e-mails you using one of these open keys, ZoEmail automatically creates a unique key for the person if and when you respond to their e-mail or add them to your address book.

You can also use the ZoEmail interface to randomly generate unique keys for new correspondents.

So Far So Good
The tiny flaw, already noted, is that only messages from senders who have a unique key or know one of your open keys will get through.

This is no good in my line of work nor in many others. I need complete strangers to be able to communicate with me by e-mail. I receive unsolicited press releases from companies that have interesting things to tell me. And occasionally I even get unsolicited e-mails from new customers.

Most small businesses, in fact, hope to get such e-mails, even if they rarely do.

ZoEmail will tell you that the service offers a couple of ways around this. Other ZoEmail subscribers can request and automatically receive a key from you using the directory function. (You can limit the number of messages you receive from such a key to as few as one.)

The open keys could also allow strangers to contact you. But if one of my open keys is so easy to acquire that strangers can find it, obviously spammers will be able to get it too.

It would not make sense, for example, to publish your e-mail address with a valid ZoEmail key at your Web site. Spammers routinely harvest addresses from Internet sites using Web bots.

There are ways to reduce the possibility that spammers will pick up an e-mail address from a Web site — spelling it out in words (eg. gerryblackwell at hotmail dot com) or creating a graphic with the address in it.

The ZoEmail service also lets you change keys, so if one gets out to spammers, you could delete it and create a new one to give out offline.

And you can set limits on open keys, telling the system to stop accepting mail from this key at a particular time on a particular date, or after receiving a pre-set number of messages using the key.

ZoEmail Do's and Don'ts
Still, ZoEmail will be problematic for many prospective small business users — as much as they might want the spam protection.

Any small business, on the other hand, that doesn't need to publish an e-mail address widely, that doesn't need to be able to receive occasional messages from complete strangers should definitely consider ZoEmail.

It works — if you're willing to go the small extra trouble of managing the keys and asking people in your Address Book to change the address they use to reach you.

The feature set is rich for a Web-based e-mail service, and the browser interface is brilliant — very slick and very fast, though it's possible it will slow down as ZoEmail acquires more subscribers and its servers get busier.

The interface includes a built-in address book. You can receive attachments up to 10 MB. ZoEmail lets you create, move and delete folders and download messages to them from other ZoEmail folders.

You can use the Web interface to create an e-mail signature, set key request options, tell the system how and when to notify you of new mail — usually with a pop-up - and change message writing options.

ZoEmail even lets you set simple filters. It calls them sorting rules, but the only action you can take on a sorted message is to delete it.

Unlike many Web-based mail services, you won't have to put up with banner and pop-up advertising in ZoEmail. Of course, you are paying for it.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit eduring.

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