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Consumer Reports Shows You How to Stop Spam from Stalking You

July 8, 2003
Lauren Hackett (914) 378-2561 or
Joan E. Quinn (914) 378-2436

August 2003 issue investigates unsolicited e-mail advertisements

YONKERS, NY – The battle between those who send unsolicited e-mail advertisements, commonly known as spam, and those blocking them has become an arms race. On one side are hordes of spammers finding ways to penetrate consumers’ inboxes. On the losing side are Internet providers with industrial-strength spam-blocking software, organizations that blacklist spammers, and consumers armed with retail spam-blocking programs.
Can anything stop spam and those who send it? Who is behind the pollution of the information superhighway? The technology experts at Consumer Reports studied hundreds of spams, used decoys to attract yet more spams, tracked down spammers, and tested products that filter spam on a home computer for the August 2003 cover story, “E-mail Spam: How to stop it from Stalking You.”
On a typical day America Online prevents 1.5 billion spams from reaching its 35 million customers. The company averages 7 million complaints daily about spam that reaches customers. There are four common ways in which spammers get your e-mail address: Public Web pages; chat rooms; use of “dictionary attacks” or common combinations of names and numbers; and online registration at Web sites.
At the heart of the spam slam is money. “Spamming is far cheaper than conventional mail. Spammers can broadcast a million messages for as little as $500. If even a few recipients buy what’s advertised, the campaign most likely pays,” says CR’s Senior Project Editor Jeff Fox.
But spam imposes heavy costs on most consumers, who must spend time sifting through all that junk and can feel violated when pornographic spam invades their home. They can miss out on legitimate e-mail that’s mistakenly blocked from delivery by their Internet provider or that they themselves hurriedly delete in the course of eradicating spam.
· Don’t buy anything promoted in a spam.
· Use one e-mail address for family and friends, another for anyone else.
· Use a provider that filters e-mail, such as AOL, Earthlink, or MSN.
· Report spam to your ISP. To help the FTC control spam, forward it to uce@ftc.gov.
· Install a firewall if you have broadband so a spammer can’t plant software on your computer to turn it into a spamming machine.
· Posting your e-mail address on a public Web page, such as eBay.
· Using your regular e-mail address inside a chat room.
· Using an easy-to-guess e-mail address.
· Disclosing your address to a site without first checking its privacy policy.
· Forwarding chain letters, petitions, or virus warnings.
Much of the spam is sent by bulk e-mail services on behalf of clients selling everything from credit cards to Viagra. Some use computers based abroad to prevent their outgoing transmissions from being blocked.
When the Federal Trade Commission recently examined spam forwarded by consumers, it found that nearly two-thirds contained false information. Last year, the FTC found that only about one-third of requests to be taken off spammers’ lists were honored. As we went to press, 33 states had laws regulating spam. Many however, simply require messages to be labeled as ads. “State anti-spam laws have not curbed spam because spammers are hard to find and prosecute. Several proposed federal bans are likely to encounter similar obstacles. The best thing consumers can do right now is nothing-don’t open spam, don’t reply, and don’t buy,” says Consumers Union President Jim Guest.
Some e-mail programs can weed out spam that your Internet provider doesn’t catch. Two widely used programs that we tested, Microsoft Outlook and Apple’s Mac OS X Mail were good overall. But Outlook was only fair at recognizing bona fide spam, and Mac OS X Mail was only fair at recognizing legitimate e-mail and not blocking real messages.
Ideally the spam-blocking software should do both those tasks well. Several add-on programs we tested, which work in tandem with the most popular e-mail programs, fared far better than Outlook or Mac OS X Mail. Among the best rated are Stata Labs SAProxy (Available free at: bloomba.com) and Mailshell SpamCatcher Universal ($20 and $14 yearly fee. Available at: mailshell.com).
The August 2003 issue of Consumer Reports goes on sale everywhere magazines are sold beginning July 8. The complete report is available free of charge at www.ConsumerReports.org.
To subscribe to Consumer Reports, call 1-800-234-1645 or visit www.ConsumerReports.org. Consumer Reports is one of the most trusted sources for information and advice on consumer products and services. CR has the most comprehensive auto-test program of any American magazine; CR’s auto experts have decades of experience in driving, testing, and reporting on cars.
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