Most of us have some kind of junk filter, but it’s not always effective. We’re going to take a look at the best ways to counter spam email attacks in both webmail and desktop email clients. That said, if you’re drowning in spam you might want to consider a shift to Gmail, as it has—as far as I’ve seen — the most effective means of blocking spam that you can get. There are a few ways to migrate your email to Gmail, and if you want to use Google Apps with your own domain name (it’s free), Google offers a migration tool to copy your inbox to their servers. We know not everyone loves Google as much as we do, so we’re going to go over as many other options as we can, but if you’ve been thinking about switching to Gmail and you’re having serious trouble with spam, now might be a good time to join up.
If you’d prefer to stick with your current email offering, however, we’ve got a bunch of stuff that’ll help you out. Every option we’ll look at it is currently free.
If you’re using Gmail (or Google Apps), Yahoo! Mail or AOL Mail to handle your email, BoxBe is a free service that will help you take control of your inbox. One great feature of BoxBe is Guest List. The way Guest List works is pretty simple: if you receive any email from someone who isn’t on the list, they’ll be asked to verify that they’re human and that they know you. Once they do that, their email will be delivered to your inbox unless you decide to take them off the list. Emails from unverified senders will sit in your Waiting List for review, so you don’t have to wait for a sender to approve themselves if you’d prefer.
To make the Guest List process easier, BoxBe’s junk filter is configurable to allow certain types of messages to be auto-approved. It rates junk messages on a scale of 1 to 10 and you can set which ratings will be automatically allowed into your inbox. For example, allowing messages with a junk rating of 3 or lower will increase the likelihood of messages from people you know, who aren’t already on your guest list, getting to your inbox without any intervention. You can also automatically block messages with a high junk rating so those messages never even cross your path.
If you don’t have Gmail/Google Apps, Yahoo! Mail, or AOL Mail, BoxBe provides a forwarding address so you can still use it with any service you’ve got.
Bayesian Filter Plug-ins
If you’re not already using a Bayesian spam filter of some kind, you’re probably wondering what it is. Here’s a quick definition, courtesy of SpamBayes (one of the options we’re going to look at):
A form of statistical analysis used (in a form) in Paul Graham‘s initial “Plan for Spam” approach. Now used as a kind of catch-all term for this class of filters, no doubt horrifying statisticians everywhere.
Some email apps already use Bayesian filters, but these plug-ins tend to be more accurate thanks to more frequent updates. Here are some of the best free options at your disposal.
SpamBayes is a cross-platform, third-party spam filter that works with a bunch of stuff but most simply with Thunderbird, Outlook / Express and Windows Live Mail. SpamBayes works by classifying messages as spam, ham (that middle ground between spam and normal, such as a newsletter), and unsure. It won’t work effectively straight out of the box. SpamBayes will need you to train it, initially, but should grow smarter as you use it. Within some time, it should be detecting and removing your spam email without your assistance.
JunkMatcher is a free, open-source plug-in for Apple Mail that doesn’t just implement a bayesian filter, but also checks for spam-like language and IP addresses to see if they’re common senders of SPAM. It integrates directly into Apple Mail and allows for a ton of customisation.
Apple Mail blog Hawkwings offers a collection of spam-filtering plug-ins, but JunkMatcher is the only free version among them. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of Apple Mail you may want to keep an eye on that section in case other free options show up in the future.
Set Up Your Own Filters in Common Desktop Apps and Webmail Apps
Filters are common in many email clients, from Gmail to Apple Mail, letting you easily bypass certain messages. An easy way to avoid spam email is to make your own custom filter that automatically moves, deletes, or archives the spam so you never see it. If you’re using Gmail, here are some great tips and tools for dealing with unwanted email:
- Try This Gmail Filter to Rope Off Mailing Lists and Newsletters
- 10 Must-Have Gmail Filters Available for Download
- Syphir Adds Awesome Advanced Filters to Gmail
- Massive Language Filter Reduces Some Gmail Spam
If you’re not in Gmail, there are a few ways to set up filters. We’ll talk a look at a few popular desktop applications and webmail apps.
Microsoft Outlook has a Rules Wizard that’ll let you easily filter email messages based on your own criteria. To get started, select the Tools menu and choose Rules Wizard. A window will pop up with the Rules Wizard and you’ll want to click New to make a new rule. The wizard will then provide you with a number of rules you can use and customise as you wish. When you’ve finished choosing your rules you’ll be able to specify what you want to happen with the email. You can move it to different folders, forward it, delete it, etc. Once you’ve made your choices, just save your filter and you’ll be all set. For more in-depth instructions with pictures, go here.
(Click to enlarge.)
Apple Mail makes filtering really easy with Smart Mailboxes. Just create a new smart mailbos (go to Mailbox, then choose New Smart Mailbox) and enter criteria that’ll filter out everything you don’t want. You can see a few options in the example above. Good things to filter out are senders you know are common spammers, words that often appear in spam email messages, and — if you want to get pretty strict — limit the messages the smart mailbox shows to only people in a particular address book group. This will help you only see the messages you really want to see and avoid the ones you don’t. Just be sure to create an email filter that’s the opposite of the one that shows no spam. That way you will have easy access to all the other messages you’re filtering out so you can go through and look for something that may not have made it past your strict filter.
Windows Live Mail / Hotmail
The latest version of Hotmail has quite a few useful settings for combatting spam. If you go into your accounts options you’ll find a section called Preventing junk email. In that section you’ll have two options: Filters and reporting and Safe and blocked senders. The Filters and reporting option will let you set how tough your spam filter will be on potential spam. The Safe and blocked senders will let you deem particular senders safe and block senders you know to be spammers. Both are helpful in filtering out your junk mail.
While these settings are helpful, you’ll find true filters in the Customise your mail section. Click Automatically sort email into folders to get started. From there, create a new filter and fill out the criteria you want. These filters are pretty simple, however, so you can’t get a ton of control. Nonetheless it is a helpful start when it comes to reducing spam that Hotmail can’t detect and remove on its own.
Yahoo! is pretty proactive in that it offers an easy guide for setting up filters in Yahoo! Mail. Like most webmail apps, you access it through Options. Once you’re in Options you just chose Filters and you can start creating a mail filter. Yahoo! Mail lets you add a fair amount of criteria to your filter and specify what to do with the message if any single criterion is matched.
Got any great tips for getting rid of spam email quickly and easily? Let’s hear ’em in the comments!