Getting Clueful: Five Things You Should Know About Fighting Spam

The battle for your users’ e-mail inboxes probably will never end, but it’s not a failure of technology. Experienced e-mail and system administrators share the key points they really, really wish you understood.

By Esther Schindler
Thu, February 15, 2007

CIO — When you started your e-mail client this morning, you were prepared for the usual set of correspondence: your daily dose of corporate politics, a dollop of technical emergencies and the background hum of projects under way. Annoyingly, your inbox also contained a few messages advertising products you would never buy, and perhaps a phishing notice warning that your account was frozen at a financial institution where you don’t have an account. Your company has antispam measures in place; surely, the IT staff should be able to keep this junk out of your inbox?

Perhaps they can, but the task of doing so has become much more difficult in recent years, partly because 85 percent or more of all e-mail traffic today is spam. If you haven’t been listening closely to the dark mutterings in your e-mail administrator’s office, you may have missed out on significant clues about the nature of the problem and what the IT department can do to address it. However, when you do listen to the technical staff, it’s easy to get lost in their arcane acronyms, such as SPF and RBLs, and you may drown in more information than you really wanted to know.

To learn what’s really happening in the technical trenches, we asked several e-mail administrators to tell us about the key items—the single key item, in fact—that they wish their IT management understood. If you read through their wish list, you may be able to understand the nature of their challenges and, perhaps, help them clean out your inbox.

In brief, says Keith Brooks, vice president at Vanessa Brooks, "Stopping spam is a mixture of luck, intelligence, alcohol and planning." With luck, he says, your CEO never hears about spam. "But without it, the CIO never stops hearing about this issue."

1. Lose No Mail.
The primary directive, for e-mail admins, is "lose no mail." If that means that an occasional spam message wends its merry way into users’ mailboxes, so be it. E-mail administrators would prefer that users encounter a few annoyances than miss an important business message.

Dr. Ken Olum, a research assistant professor in the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, also maintains the institute’s computers. Olum explains, "The most important thing is never to silently drop an important e-mail. If you just drop it, your correspondent thinks you aren’t answering on purpose or forgets all about you. So suspected spam should always be rejected and never dropped. Sequestering it is only slightly better than dropping it, because you have to look through the sequestered spam, and most people don’t bother."

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