Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Spam in the Can

February 2003

By Mike Gould

Warning, warning!! Danger! Do not heed the following advice. Much to my chagrin and embarrassement, SpamArrest turned out to be spammers themselves. Read the following and follow the link to the next story, where most of the following was retracted.

Ahhh... Blessed Relief. I have found a solution to the flood of spam that had been flushing regularly into my mailbox. No more ads for Viagra, no more Nigerian banking scams, and Bambi over at mynaughtywebcam.com will have to find someone else to entice. It is like someone stopped yelling insults in my ear all day long.

And I owe it all to an ad Sandy Eiler saw in Eudora.

Give it Arrest
Our tale begins last week when I sent out an email to all my consulting clients. I got a curious reply from Sandy, telling me that in order to send her email, I had to go to a web site and take a word test. I did so, and saw a message explaining that in order to escape the onslaught of spam, she had hired a spam filtering service (which she saw advertised in Eudora), and asking did I want to prove I was a human being and not a spam-slinging robot (spambot)? I did so, and have enjoyed normal email exchanges with her ever since. (Sandy Eiler is a principal of Eiler Communications http://www.eilerpr.com/, whose computers I look after occasionally.)

What is happening here is that the bulk of spam is sent out by spambots, i.e., computers programmed to do the dirty deed without adult supervision. To prevent this, unknown email senders are referred to a page on the filterer's site where they are asked to look at a picture of a word on the screen, and then type the word into a field on the page. Something any human web surfer can do with ease, but a spambot cannot. Also, since most spammers use fake return addresses, they never see the verification request that is sent back to them, and their emails die unverified.

The name of this marvelous company is SpamArrest, LLC, found at:

http://www.spamarrest.com/

The service costs $35 a year if you pay in advance, and is very well worth it, IMHO (GeekSpeak for In My Humble Opinion, a phrase we meeker geeks use all the time). They offer services for individuals and to ISPs - the ISP version is a heavy-duty operation that covers the entire mail center of a provider.

Modus Operandi
After talking to Sandy, I signed myself up to check it out. I am currently doing the free 30-day trial service, after which I will probably sign up full time. The signup process is very simple, and their online support is top-notch. They instruct you how to set up your email program (I use Eudora) so that you are receiving your email from their server instead of your usual one.

The flow is as follows: An email is sent to your usual email box. Every 120 seconds, their filterbot (the SpamArrest computer program running this) checks your box and downloads all your mail to their mail processing center. Folks who have already passed the Are You Human? test from a previous email have their email sent along, and the rest are queued up waiting the results of the test.

You can verify your email manually by going to the Spamarrest site and checking the list of unverified email from the last 7 days. There you can permit laggards or refuse emails that look spammish. The refused emails are deleted and never appear in your inbox.

In other words, the service will filter your email for you, letting through the good stuff and flushing the bad stuff before you see it. The stuff that is unverified stays put for a week for you to check out manually.

Remember: spam stands for "Septic Products As Mail" - well, not really. For a history of spam, see my previous article at my Web site: http://www.mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.25.shtml. Hmmm...I wrote this back in May, 2000; it's depressing to think this little inconvenience has been with us so long.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent
You have the ability to add people to the approved list ahead of time, so known correspondents don't have to take the test. The Spamarresters are working on a plan that will enable you to upload your entire email address book, which would be a time saver. It took me around an hour to permit access to my known friends, clients, and list senders.

The only problem I have found is that I can't permit an entire domain: I would love to permit anyone emailing me from within umich.edu, the U of M system. I need to receive emails from these folks on a regular basis for business reasons and don't like having to put them through this process if I can avoid it.

I spoke to Cameron Elliot of Spamarrest, who informed me that they have been in business for about 18 months, and that they have accumulated thousands of clients in that short span. He responded to my email inquiry in less than 24 hours, which speaks well for their customer service.

Sandy Eiler says that she has used the service for two months, and is very happy with it - "A life saver". As far as she knows, she has missed no proper emails, and doesn't miss at all the hundreds of spams she was receiving every week. She reports that one or two spams somehow make it through the filters, and these aren't a problem.

I've used the service for three days, and I'm very impressed.

But
I'm going to shut it off because it is not the right solution for me. In my job at the UM, I have to be instantly responsive to strangers who may be emailing me with problems. I can get around this by checking my unverified mail every hour or so, but that gets to be a pain. I still think this is a very good solution for most small businesses, though. I would recommend giving it the free 30-day trial if spam is a problem for you. Just make sure you permit your usual correspondents immediately after signing up.

The other reason I'm shutting this down is that my ISP, Factotem.com, is implementing a site-wide solution using SpamAssassin. More on this next month.

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