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Spam filtering techniques
By David Mertz, Ph.D. - 2004-04-06 Page:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Six approaches to eliminating unwanted e-mail

The problem of unsolicited e-mail has been increasing for years, but help has arrived. In this article, David discusses and compares several broad approaches to the automatic elimination of unwanted e-mail while introducing and testing some popular tools that follow these approaches.

Unethical e-mail senders bear little or no cost for mass distribution of messages, yet normal e-mail users are forced to spend time and effort purging fraudulent and otherwise unwanted mail from their mailboxes. In this article, I describe ways that computer code can help eliminate unsolicited commercial e-mail, viruses, trojans, and worms, as well as frauds perpetrated electronically and other undesired and troublesome e-mail. In some sense, the final and best solution for eliminating spam will probably take place on a legal level. In the meantime, however, you can do some things from a code perspective that can serve as an interim solution to the problem, until (if ever) the laws begin to evolve at the same rate as public frustration.

Considering matters technically -- but also with common sense -- what is generally called "spam" is somewhat broader than the category "unsolicited commercial e-mail"; spam encompasses all the e-mail that we do not want and that is only very loosely directed at us. Such messages are not always commercial per se, and some push the limits of what it means to be solicited. For example, we do not want to get viruses (even from our unwary friends); nor do we generally want chain letters, even if they don't ask for money; nor proselytizing messages from strangers; nor outright attempts to defraud us. In any case, it is usually unambiguous whether a message is spam, and many, many people get the same such e-mails.

The problem with spam is that it tends to swamp desirable e-mail. In my own experience, a few years ago I occasionally received an inappropriate message, perhaps one or two each day. Every day of this month, in contrast, I received many times more spams than I did legitimate correspondences. On average, I probably get 10 spams for every appropriate e-mail. In some ways I am unusual -- as a public writer, I maintain a widely published e-mail address; moreover, I both welcome and receive frequent correspondence from strangers related to my published writing and to my software libraries. Unfortunately, a letter from a stranger -- with who-knows-which e-mail application, OS, native natural language, and so on, is not immediately obvious in its purpose; and spammers try to slip their messages underneath such ambiguities. My seconds are valuable to me, especially when they are claimed many times during every hour of a day.



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First published by IBM developerWorks


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