Stop spam the easy way: pick an anti-spam ISP

Most people choose to install anti-spam software on their desktop, but there are both easier and more in-depth ways to block unsolicited emails.

Stop spam the easy way: pick an anti-spam ISP

Even with the best desktop software in the world, you still have to download messages you do not want or need. This is inconvenient when you have a broadband subscription, but can be disastrous over a dial-up connection. It would be much better if your email server got rid of the spam before it even reached you.

There are two main ways to achieve this. The first is to run your own email server at the end of a fast connection and let it handle the spam filtering. When you connect, even using a slow mobile GSM connection, most of the spam should have been removed and you will get a high percentage of real email.

It is not for the technologically faint-hearted, but could reap huge rewards. We go through the basics of building a Linux-based anti-spam email server.

Let your ISP do it

The second option is to allow your ISP (or you could use a permission-based service) to do the anti-spam scanning for you. On the plus side, these service providers should know what they are doing and be constantly alert to new spamming techniques. The main concern is that you could lose an important email.

However, we have found that many ISPs that provide free or very low-cost anti-spam scanning simply tag your incoming mail with a label to help you filter it in your email client. While this means you will always receive real messages, mis-tagged or not, it also forces you to download the spam. This is not ideal. For a detailed list of what some popular ISPs can do for you.

ISPs vs managed services

There is a world of difference between the services a consumer-orientated ISP will provide and the managed services available to businesses. With the former, you can have your email messages tagged with the word [spam] in the subject field for free or nearly free, while companies with larger budgets can have all incoming mail filtered and only receive the good stuff.

ISPs usually use a filtering system such as SpamAssassin or Brightmail to decide whether a message is spam or not, but this will be relatively transparent to users. There may be a web page with some basic controls to change the aggression level of the spam detection, and web-based email systems such as Hotmail allow you to enter the addresses and Internet domains of your contacts to ensure their mail gets through, but that’s usually the extent of your control. With POP3 services, you can expect to download everything, with spam being labelled as such.

A fully managed system, suitable for business use, works in quite a different way. Some, including the one run by UK company MessageLabs, work by intercepting all mail sent to a company’s domain and applying filters for spam, viruses and other threats. The real mail is passed through to the incoming mail server hosted by the business, and the suspect mail is sent to an archive or quarantine system. Users download mail from the business’ own mail server, and a web interface gives the users access to suspect messages on the quarantine server.

MessageLabs claims to stop up to 100 per cent of all incoming spam, but that claim is rather pointless – it is not going to be able to stop more than 100 per cent, and it does not give a likely minimum. Symantec says its Brightmail AntiSpam service has 95 per cent effectiveness, but links this statistic to a magazine survey rather than making this claim itself. The truth is that no system will clear 100 per cent of spam and guarantee zero per cent false positives and, in just the same way that no sensible company would dare claim its products could stop all viruses or hackers, companies do not like to say they can stop all spam while leaving all real messages unmolested.

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