When considering how to protect your mail system from spam, you’ll find that there are way too many choices in
the marketplace to be able to possibly evaluate them all. Since each solution
handles spam differently, it’s important to
understand the various methods by which spam filters
do their deeds. There are four major types of spam
technology available. I’ll discuss each here.


Bayesian filters use complex statistical algorithms using
existing information to determine the probability that a message can be
trusted. The term “existing information” is important as it means
that this type of solution requires a ramp-up period during which it may be
less than effective at capturing spam. However, many
people report that, once filters are trained, they do an excellent job of
canning spam with a minimal number of false
positives. Further, since by its nature, a Bayesian filters learns from its
mistakes, it generally requires less ongoing maintenance than other types of filters,
and the filter is good at adjusting its parameters to meet the needs of the
individual user. On the con side, spammers have found
ways to defeat some of the measures used by these filters. If you’ve ever
received a spam e-mail with a large number of
nonsensical words, you’ve seen this in action. By inserting enough valid words
into a message, a spammer can fool a Bayesian filter
into thinking a message is legit.

Whitelist and blacklist

If an address or domain exists on a whitelist,
the message is allowed through; in fact, only messages from addresses on the whitelist are allowed through. If, on the other hand, an
address or domain is on a blacklist, it’s blocked while all other messages are
allowed. There are a number of blacklist services-called RBLs,
for RealtimeBlackhole
Lists, that compile lists of known spammer addresses.
However, RBLs can be problematic in that if they’re
not maintained, or they’re maintained by an overzealous administrator, legit
senders might be blocked. The pro side of white and black lists is their
simplistic nature. For this kind of spam filter,
there is only the dark side and the light side. There is no in between. On the
con side, they require a huge amount of maintenance, especially for whitelists, which require an entry every time you want to
add a new allowed sender.


Very simply put, these kinds of spam filters look for certain words, such as “Viagra” and kill a message if those words are present.
These filters require significant administration in that each time you want to
block a new word, you need to create a rule. Further, spammers have found it child’s play to get around these
kinds of filters. They use a variety of ways to do this. One way is to make the
word still readable, but different. For example: “V.i.a.g.r.a”
Sure you can create a rule that blocks that version too, but spammers have gotten even sneakier. In some cases, you
might look at the word “V.i.a.g.r.a” and
wonder why your filter didn’t catch it. If you copy and paste the word into
Word and change the font size to something larger, you’ll notice that the spammers don’t use periods between the letters at all.
Instead, they use a variety of characters with a font size of 1 so that they
look like a period, but can get past filters.


In a desperate move to thwart spammers,
some new spam systems require senders to basically
prove that they are allowed to send mail to someone. Before a person using this
system receives a message, the sender must visit a web site and answer some
questions. The pro is that this system virtually eliminates spam.
The con is that it’s a pain in the neck for legitimate senders.

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