Join forces with Outlook to win the junk e-mail wars

Take this four-step approach to ridding your company of its worst bandwidth hog: junk e-mail. From Outlook's filtering features to taking a spammer to court, you'll see how the war can be won, as long as you know the rules.

If you or your users receive as many e-mails a day as I do, it’s a pretty good bet that at least some of that e-mail is junk. If all of that spam were to somehow cease to exist, Internet bandwidth would probably increase a good 50 percent, maybe more. I may be exaggerating a bit about the bandwidth, but not about the uselessness of a big chunk of the e-mail traffic zipping around the Internet these days. To help you win the war on junk e-mail, I'll explain some techniques and tools you can use in Outlook to get a handle on where to put all of that e-mail.

Use Outlook’s junk mail filters
Outlook includes its own junk mail filters. While Outlook's filter doesn’t delete messages, it does change their headers to gray to provide a visual indicator that the message fits the criteria for junk mail. Outlook changes the headers to maroon for messages that fit the adult content criteria. If you prefer, you can configure the filters to move the messages to a different folder rather than color them.

To perform this filtering process, Outlook adds a file named Filters.txt to the \Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office10\1033 folder. The file describes the criteria that Outlook’s internal filter uses to identify junk and adult content messages. The folder name varies slightly according to the Outlook version, but the file name is the same. If you have problems finding the file, just search for Filters.txt in the drive where Office is installed.

Note that the Filters.txt file doesn’t define the filter—it just serves as an explanation of the way the filter works. So, changing the contents of the file has no effect. That’s unfortunate, because the criteria for filtering are limited in scope. For example, the filter catches “ xxx” with a leading space, but doesn’t catch “xxx” without a space. It would be nice to be able to modify the filter list without creating a special rule for it.

Even though you can’t modify the filter criteria, you can add e-mail addresses and/or domains to the junk and adult senders lists. These lists are text files that you can modify directly, change through Outlook, or simply replace with a new, distributed version. For example, you’ll find an extensive junk senders list at Gaznet, with instructions on how to replace your existing list with the new list. This file contains over 30,000 spammer addresses and will save you hours of work building your antispam list.

Within Outlook, the junk list file is named Junk Senders.txt, and the adult list file is named Adult Content Senders.txt. The location of the files varies depending on your operating system version. (If you haven’t yet enabled the junk and adult senders lists, the files don’t exist at all.) Windows 9x and Me users will find the files in either C:\Windows\Application Data\Microsoft \Outlook or C:\Windows\Profiles\%username%\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook. Windows NT users will find the files in C:\Profiles\%username%\Application Data\Microsoft Outlook. Windows 2000/XP users who upgraded from Windows NT will find them in the same spot, but users who installed Windows 2000 or XP from scratch need to look in the Documents And Settings folder rather than the Profiles folder.

Although you can modify the text files manually, it’s much easier to modify them from within Outlook. To do so, open the Inbox and click the Organize button in the toolbar or choose Tools | Organize. Click Junk E-Mail after the Organize pane opens, then click the link for more options. Click the Edit Junk Senders or Edit Adult Content Senders link to open a simple dialog box in which you enter the e-mail address or e-mail domain of the sender you want to filter as junk. You can also right-click a message header, choose Junk E-mail, and choose either Add To Junk Senders List or Add To Adult Content Senders List to add the address to the selected list.

Finally, you need to specify the filter action and turn on the filters. Click the Back To Junk E-Mail link and select either Color or Move from the drop-down list for each filter. If you choose Move, you also need to select a folder location for the messages. Then, click the Turn On button beside the filter to enable it.

Some valid messages are bound to match the filters sooner or later, so you’ll no doubt need to make a few exceptions to the rules. You’ll do this by modifying the Exception List rule within the Rules Wizard. Click on Tools and open the Rules Wizard, then locate the Exception List rule and select it. Click the Exception List link in the bottom pane to open the Edit Exception List dialog box. Add the e-mail address or domain of any senders that you don’t want treated as junk or adult content senders.

Create custom rules
The Junk Senders and Adult Content Senders filters are handy, but they really are just a partial solution. You’ll find that a set of custom rules can be an effective weapon against junk mail. One of the most effective means of dealing with junk mail is to filter out any message that comes from a sender you don’t know. Messages that don't fit that condition go to the Inbox, while others go to your designated junk folder or get deleted.

The approach I like is to sort subscription list-based messages and other special messages, such as log or error messages, into folders separate from the Inbox, keep messages from known senders in the Inbox, and move junk mail to a junk folder. This keeps my subscription messages separate from other, potentially more important, messages. It also eliminates the need to manually move log files, which I keep but seldom read.

Doing all this requires a set of rules. First, create the folders to contain these special messages by clicking File | New | Folder. Then, create one or more rules from the Rules Wizard to check the From, To, or Subject fields of the messages as needed to identify them. Have the rule move the messages to the folder(s) you’ve created for that purpose. The last step of the rule should be to Stop Processing More Rules.

If you’ve been following along with Outlook 97, you’ve probably realized that you don’t have a Stop Processing More Rules option. You can get around that for non-Exchange Server accounts by specifying a Move action to the Inbox.

You’ll probably want messages that are sent specifically to your private e-mail address, if you use one, to stay in the Inbox. So, the next step is to create a rule that checks the Sent Directly To Me or Where My Name Is In conditions to identify those messages. Specify Stop Processing More Rules as the rule action.

In Outlook 2002, you can use a different method to separate good mail from junk mail. The condition Sender Is In Specified Address Book lets you check an incoming message to see if the sender’s address is in your Contacts folder or Personal Address Book (or other location, such as the Global Address List). The assumption here is that these people won’t be sending you junk mail. Why would you keep their addresses, otherwise?

To make this method work, make sure that each acceptable sender address exists in your Contacts folder or Personal Address Book. Then, create a rule from the Rules Wizard that checks the Sender Is In Specified Address Book condition, with the action to Stop Processing More Rules. This rule will prevent the message from being moved to the junk folder. Keep in mind that this method only works for Outlook 2002.

At this point, all of the messages you want to keep should be either safely kept in the Inbox or moved to other folders. So, any other messages can be moved to your junk folder, where they’ll remain until you have a chance to review them. Complete the process by creating one last rule that moves messages to the folder you’re using for junk mail, using the same steps described above.

Choose your (third-party) weapon
You can find lots of third-party solutions for handling junk mail. A search on your favorite download site will probably turn up several. For example, InboxDoctor uses a junk mail database to scan messages and places the messages in a special folder before Outlook downloads them. McAfee’s SpamKiller is a great product that you should check out if you want automatically updated spam filtering. Another option is Mailshell, a service you can use to filter your e-mail. A few hours spent checking out your options will definitely pay off when you are able to cut down the amount of unwanted mail you and your users have to sort through in your Inboxes.

Last, but not least, litigate
Although no one wants to go through the pain and hassle of litigation, if push comes to shove, as a last resort you can sue spammers. At least, you can in some states within the United States, European Union, and certain other countries. You won’t get rich, but you may get some sense of moral victory from taking a spammer to small claims court. You might even get an out-of-court settlement and not have to go through the hassle of an actual court case. The key to getting anywhere with a claim is knowing the spam laws in your state or country. You can check out the Spam Laws Web site for a list of countries, states, and applicable laws, as well as case histories and other information.

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