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How far is too far in fighting spam?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 23, 2006
(Issue 2425, Remote Learning)

How far are you willing to go to fight spam?

More to the point, how much inconvenience are you willing to put up with to make it harder for spammers to succeed?

What brings this up are a couple of recent experiences as both sender of and recipient of e-mails.

In the first, I was replying to someone on EarthLink – he had submitted some poetry to my e-zine,, and I was writing back to say I loved it and wanted to publish it.

Almost immediately, I received an automated e-mail from the EarthLink spam blocker explaining that only those e-mail addresses previously approved could successfully get through to the recipient's in-box. I was then directed to an online form I could fill out requesting to be added to his approved list.

Which I did – I mean, his poetry was good.

I felt a little put out, but considering that it's all in the name of stopping spam, didn't mind too much.

Still, there's no guarantee that everyone feels that way. I haven't seen any studies on the issue, but imagine there is a certain percentage of people who won't fill out the form and whom EarthLink subscribers simply don't hear from again.

On the receiving end

The next incident occurred when I had written to another poet who had submitted to Turbula, again accepting his work for publication. Now, before I can publish it, I need to hear back from the author acknowledging that everything is a go. Hadn't heard from him for awhile, and had kind of given up, when I got a message from him – only from a different e-mail account. My own anti-spam service,'s BlockSmith.

I'm certainly not dissing BlockSmith – DTL founder and owner Morgan Davis (a familiar name to longtime San Diego online denizens, due to his history with CTS and, before that, as author of the ProLine BBS software package for the Apple II computers) has done a great job of keeping my in-box spam-free.

But occasionally, I have a friend or, in this case, acquaintance, whose e-mails to me are rejected by BlockSmith. While I don't know how BlockSmith works exactly (and due to the competitive nature of anti-spam tools, I'm fairly certain Morgan wouldn't tell me everything even if I asked!), I gather it accesses some sort of database that tracks servers that are the points of origin of large volumes of spam – and then blocks those servers from accessing DTL's clients' e-mail addresses.

Unfortunately, many times smaller Web site domains share a physical server – so even if you aren't sending out any spam from your account, if you are sharing a server with a spammer, you can find yourself blocked.

Of if you have an account on a large commercial provider where spammers are likely to send out large amounts of spam in the short time before their account is deleted, you may find yourself on this database of spam-generating servers. Because the poet who was trying to write to me to say, "Yes, yes, please publish my poems" had a Yahoo account that was being blocked.

He then wrote to me from his work address, and that got through.

I had another colleague, who represents quite a few jazz musicians on the East Coast, find herself blocked by BlockSmith while trying to send me a press release about one of her client's upcoming CD releases. Rather than using another account to reach me, she e-mailed the DTL contact address provided in BlockSmith's automated rejection notice to explain she was not a spammer. Morgan promptly took her domain (a small one, probably sharing a physical server with other, possibly spamming, domains) off the blocked list.

Still, as conscientious and prompt as Morgan is – and in 20 years, I've never known him to be less than either – I wonder how many people whose messages to me are inadvertently blocked by BlockSmith simply give up. It's probably not many, but surely there are some.

And that's part of the cost of fighting spam.

Mailing lists

A larger cost, though, comes in the difficulty legitimate mass e-mailers have in getting past tools like EarthLink's spam blocker or BlockSmith.

Say you're planning your high school class reunion. Or you're a small company that sells a specialized product. You might quite reasonably want to send out occasional e-mails to your classmates or customers with updates or announcements.

Or, in my case, I have a list of all the people who have contributed to over the years. When I update the site, I sometimes send out a brief announcement of what the new additions are.

If everyone on my list was an EarthLink subscriber, I'd have to manually fill out a hundred or so request forms – how likely am I to do that?

On several lists I am on, each e-mail message contains a quick reminder at the top that "to ensure you receive future announcements, be sure to add our e-mail address to your approved list."

This isn't just for EarthLink users, but for those using Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo mail as well – if they're in your address book, their messages won't get shuffled off to the junk or spam folders.

Again, it's all part of the cost of fighting spam. The question is, how much are we losing in that fight?