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Anti spam - email filtering/ blocking services guide & review.

As much as I love email and see it as an acceptable form of marketing, I'm very anti spam. When someone joins one of our lists, they only get what they signed for - nothing more. Unfortunately, not all webmasters share the same view, although it's only a very small minority who do spam - it's just that they do it in a big way. And that makes it hard for all of us who suffer from anti spam measures.

Still, I can see why people are using anti spam tools, challenge/response email filtering and blocking services - we probably get 10x more unsolicited email than most.  And it's not just spam marketing that's a concern, it's also the email viruses that inundate our boxes. During the SoBig virus onslaught, we received over 91,000 email viruses, which blew our bandwidth caps. Needless to say, we were eager to prevent this from happening again.
 

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We were lucky that our hosting service decided soon after to install server side anti spam and anti virus software, which is currently being tested with excellent results. But for those not so lucky to have this feature; I decided to take a look at a few remotely hosted services currently available.

How do anti-spam services work?

Remotely hosted email blocking and filtering services are a great way to go as the hard work of configuration and security is taken care of by another company.

Basically what happens is that you give the service access to your mailbox. That way friends, colleagues and clients still write to you at your usual address - the service "plugs in" to your existing email setup. You also continue to send mail via your normal address.

The anti spam service then automatically checks your inbox and collects your email and processes it.

Any email from an 'unapproved' address is responded to with an email by the filtering service requesting the person to take further action to allow the email to be received by you. Once the action has been taken, future email from that person is automatically deemed "clean" and will go straight through to you. This is known as "challenge/response" filtering.

As most spammers broadcast to tens of thousands of email addresses in each instance, they won't concern themselves with going to the trouble of getting their message to you, whereas valid mail senders will react to a challenge/response setup. 

If you subscribe to a lot of newsletters, all you really need then is a free email account to send these to, or to configure your filtering service to permit emails from selected organizations.

A good anti-spam service will also recognize virus emails and stop these dead in their tracks.

To collect your mail, you simply use your standard email program. Only a minor adjustment to your POP3 settings is usually necessary in order to collect your mail. Once set up, which only takes a few minutes, the whole process is seamless from there on in. All you should receive is clean mail, free of spam and viruses.
 

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What to look for in anti-spam filtering/blocking filtering

Spam blocking and filtering solutions have rapidly gained popularity due to the increasing problems of unsolicited email and viruses. There's some great services out there, but as with anything else, there's some shocking ones.

After reviewing a number of services, I've put together these points to look for when you go to review a mail filtering solution for yourself:

  • There must be a free trial. Don't shell out cash for something you aren't sure will suit you

  • It must work in with your current email software. Check for compatibility. Setting up shouldn't require a university degree. Many good services now provide a wizard type set up with automatic configuration.

  • It must be customizable - you should be able to add/edit/delete your list of "approved" addresses.

  • It must be secure - check the company background and technology they are using in conjunction with their filtering/blocking service.

  • Support is important - does the company offer live after sales support?

  • Legitimate mail senders shouldn't need to jump through too many hoops to get their email to you. Some challenge/response services make validation a nightmare.

  • There must be an interface for webmail. If you're away from your computer, you'll need facilities for remote access.

  • It must be economical - you shouldn't need to pay more than $5 a month for this kind of service - and even five bucks is on the expensive side.

A challenge/response service that I recently tried which fulfills all the above criteria is Spam Arrest. The signup was simple and they offer an automatic configuration process for people who aren't comfortable with adjusting their mail settings. The service works well and survived the tests I carried out admirably. Spam Arrest offer a 30 day free trial - it's well worthwhile checking out.

 

Spam and viruses are unfortunately here to stay. The cost to industry and individuals in dealing with these darker aspects of web life in terms of time are astronomical. With our inboxes flooded, it's so much easier to accidentally delete communications from clients and friends - but at least now there are many alternatives to just using the delete button.

Ever been accused of spamming? It's not a pleasant experience, especially if you're innocent. Review some tips and strategies in handling spam complaints.

Given the current trend of governments actively pursuing spammers, and the inevitable consequences of them probably only successfully prosecuting those who least deserve it; it's time to review email marketing strategies.

If you're one of the many people wondering how spammers and virus writers get your email address in the first place, learn more in this article:

Spam and virus emails - how they end up in your inbox

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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