(NEW YORK, August 9th, 2002, 4:25 p.m.) -- It seems too good to be true: software that promises to rid your inbox of unsolicited commercial e-mail. And for the most part, it was.
Only one of the four programs I tested over a week met my needs -- and even then a lot of spam still slipped through.
My testing methodology involved creating 10 test e-mail accounts and using the 18 active accounts I already had.
First up was the $39.95 Choicemail from DigiPortal Software Inc., which requires Windows 98 and up and works only with POP3 e-mail accounts, the type most Internet service providers offer.
You can't use it with Web accounts like Hotmail and Yahoo! or proprietary systems like America Online, though people may mail you from those accounts.
Nor did it work with my company account, based on IMAP, not POP3.
Unlike the other, filter-based products, Choicemail takes a permission approach. People who want to contact you must first say why. Spammers presumably won't bother -- and didn't in my tests.
I was allowed to enter e-mail addresses of people I knew -- or import entire address books from Outlook Express or Eudora. Those people could send me messages immediately, without asking
Others got an e-mail directing them to a Web site where they were compelled to fill out a form.
I sent test messages from several accounts and found confirmation usually simple. Nonetheless, I'm not egoistical enough to believe that people are so desperate to contact me they'd be willing to jump through even minimal hoops.
And the last thing I want to do is bombard e-mail discussion lists with these confirmation requests -- I know I'm annoyed when people send out automated "I'm on vacation" messages to those lists.
Choicemail won't be my choice.
The $22.50 SpamDetective from EmTec Innovative Software works with my company IMAP account and Hotmail (though not AOL, MSN or Yahoo). It also works with MAPI accounts. You need a Windows computer.
The software analyzes e-mail for keywords such as "free" and "sex" and clues like embedded pictures from external Web servers, a sign of porn. Each message is assigned a score, and the higher the score the more likely it is spam.
Though I'm grateful it works with my company and Hotmail accounts, I found the filters too error-prone.
One item used "click here" a few too many times, even though it was a legitimate newsletter with lots of links to information.
And the filter did nothing to stop the three copies of a pitch for secretly monitoring online activities of spouses and children. It also let through three messages featuring "Sex pic of the day."
Enter McAfee.com's $39.95 SpamKiller, which works with POP3 and MAPI accounts.
It has some useful features. You can configure it to automatically forward spam to the abuse desk of both your service provider and that of the sender. You can also have it return error messages to trick spammers into believing your account does not exist.
But the filters made many mistakes, and I found lots of legitimate mail in my junk folder, for simple reasons like user names that consisted of mostly numbers.
Though SpamKiller was nice to inform me of its criteria so I could make adjustments, I didn't want to spend a lot of time doing so. Nor did I want to take the time to configure a list of "always allow" addresses.
I also tried Mailshell's premium filtering service, which costs $34.95 a year. You set up an e-mail address with Mailshell and have messages forwarded there after being "cleansed" of spam.
Unlike the other services, Mailshell supports a range of accounts, including IMAP, AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo (but not MSN). It didn't work with my company or my AT&T WorldNet accounts because of security controls.
It does work with Macintosh computers -- all you need is a Web browser or a standard e-mail program like Netscape Messenger. As a bonus, Mailshell let me view Hotmail and AOL messages using a regular e-mail program.
Mailshell was excellent at distinguishing legitimate mail. If anything, it errs on the side of caution -- lots of spam still gets through but far less than before.
I have the option of making the filters more aggressive, but I could lose more good mail that way.
I put the three filter-based products to a test, making them filter an e-mail discussion list about spam that liberally quotes from actual spam in discussing how to fight back.
Can software tell the difference?
SpamKiller mistakenly killed 28 of 131 legitimate messages from that list, while Spam Detective killed seven. Mailshell killed only five.
I tried cranking up Mailshell's settings to most aggressive and found it killed more than half my legitimate messages.
So I'll keep the setting at lenient.
Overall, I like Mailshell. It may not work with my company account, but it works with the AOL and Hotmail addresses that get the most spam. It also works pretty well.
So go ahead and spam me at njesdanun(at)hotmail.com.
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