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February 9, 2004

What can you do about spam?

By Tim Stephens

Communicationms and Technology Services (CATS) activated the Spam Assassin spam-filtering technology on the campus mail server last year.

CATS staff decided not to block messages identified as spam at the server after conducting a survey of campus computer users, said systems manager John Hammond.

To take full advantage of this service, individual computer users need to configure their e-mail programs to filter out the messages that the server identifies as spam.

Detailed instructions for how to do this are available at "CATS Spam Filter Tools."

Additional information about CATS spam-filtering services is available at http://www2.ucsc.edu/cats/sc/services/spam/

CATS staff decided not to block messages identified as spam at the server after conducting a survey of campus computer users, said systems manager John Hammond.

"The consensus from the survey was that getting a handful of spam is not nearly as big a deal to people as missing a message that they want to get," Hammond said.

Spam Assassin assigns scores to each message indicating the likelihood that it is spam. Users can vary the threshold at which messages get filtered out. The trick is finding the right balance between filtering out as much spam as possible and not filtering out important messages. And some spam will inevitably get through the filters, because the spammers are constantly adapting to the filter technology.

"Filtering technology often tags legitimate e-mail messages and fails to label some spam," said Arthur Keller, visiting associate professor of computer science.

"I get several hundred spam messages a day. Without the two levels of spam filtering I use, it would be hard for me to read my e-mail. But I still have to scan the messages labeled as spam for the occasional legitimate e-mail message I would otherwise miss," Keller said.

Some mailing lists and e-mail newsletters that people want to receive will always be identified as spam. It is not difficult, however, to set the filters so that messages from specified sources are allowed through (instructions are included on the "CATS Spam Filter Tools" web site referenced above).

Hammond said CATS regularly upgrades the mail applications on the campus server, and future upgrades should lead to significant improvements in the ability to counter spam.

The latest versions of some e-mail programs--including Eudora 6.0 and the version of Apple Mail that comes with Mac OS X--have built-in spam filters that users can "train" to recognize the mail they do and do not want to receive.

In addition to using the available filters, other recommendations for minimizing the amount of spam you receive include the following:

Never respond to a spam message in any way. Doing so only generates more spam, because it confirms to the spammer that e-mail sent to your address is actually being read by someone.

Limit the visibility of your e-mail address. Your e-mail address can be harvested from a variety of sources, including web pages, newsgroups, and mailing lists. Unfortunately, many campus faculty and staff need to make their addresses available on campus web sites, where they are vulnerable to harvesting by spammers.

Hammond noted that security measures to protect your computer from hackers and viruses also play a role in combating spam. Spammers often send their messages from other people's computers to disguise their identities. In the latest twist, they appear to be using viruses to transform infected computers into spam-sending machines. CATS maintains a web page with information on computer security.

Like other campus computer experts, Hammond is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for controlling spam.

"I think our efforts can make a significant difference, but at the same time I am certain that spam is never going to go away," he said.

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