Green eggs and spam

I love the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham and can remember reading it often to our kids when they were small.  But that’s not what this is about.  No, I’m talking about spam, and it doesn’t matter if it’s green or some other color.  And just to be clear, this isn’t the spam that you eat.  No sir, what I’m referring to is that uninvited email that unscrupulous advertisers send to my (and your) email account every day.

An estimated 40% of all email traffic is now spam!!!  I know I’m running at about 50% now.  On top of that, some well-meaning individuals generate what I call personal spam.  They send or forward a regular stream of emails that makes a commercial spammer seem benign.  I’m not talking about the occasional forward of an especially interesting email.  We all do that on occasion (but do me a favor...blind copy those you forward to so that you’re not sharing everyone’s email address) but some people seem to view this as their contribution to society (and I know from experience how immaturely some will take a polite request to discontinue sending to you).

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and spam.
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.

There’s a lot of buzz in the press and in political circles about how to fix the spam problem, but my own belief is that really effective solutions will have to come from the private sector.  I’ve for some time now used spam filtering on selected email accounts to weed out emails from known spammers and find they are about 50 - 60 percent effective.  Creating some filtering rules can bring this up o 70 - 80 percent capture rate, but that’s the best I’ve been able to achieve using these methods.  There is also an ever-increasing batch of products that have more advanced spam filtering capabilities, sometimes as high as 96% capture, but they all also capture good emails so you have to constantly be checking what’s been blocked.

I’ve decided to try a different, and somewhat controversial, approach.  I’m testing a challenge/response email service that virtually guarantees that no spam will get through.  Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you send me an email from a new email address.  Your email address will be checked against my address list, and since we’re talking about a new email address, there will not be a match.  In this case you will immediately receive a “challenge/response” email and your original email will go to a special “pending” folder.  Once you “respond” to the challenge/response email, your email address is added to my address list and your original email appears in my inbox.  Since spam is almost always computer generated, it will not respond appropriately to the challenge email (and may not even receive it), so no spam gets through.  I’ve been testing it on one of my email accounts now for a week and no spam has gotten through.

Sounds perfect, right?  So why do I say it’s controversial.  There are several reasons.  First the person sending the email might be offended because the system basically begins with the assumption that email from an unconfirmed email address is spam.  Personally, with all the attention spam has gotten recently, I don’t think this is such a big deal, especially since the challenge email is nicely worded.

Another issue is that the sender may send the original email and then shut down their email program thinking all is well.  It may be a day or two before they check again and find that they received a challenge email immediately after sending their original email.  That means there will have been a delay in getting the email sent out.  This is to me the most serious flaw in the concept.

Finally the challenge/response method causes a small increase in email traffic.  I frankly discount this argument completely.  After all, only the first legitimate email gets challenged, and it’s a very small email.  The total bandwidth used is negligible.

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and spam.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

Because I find spam so distasteful (not the kind you eat of course), I’m willing to give this a try.  Other steps I’ve taken are to unsubscribe to opt-in and routine emails from legitimate businesses (never “unsubscribe” to spam from unknown or less legitimate sources since that often serves to alert them that your email address is an active one), and I work hard not to post my email address anywhere on the web since there are email bots that will crawl the web looking for email addresses to add to their spam lists.  On my Yahoo address I use their spam blocking service, which works reasonably well.  It does let spam through and occasionally blocks legitimate email.

So what do you think?  Does the method I’m testing sound reasonable to you?  Are you doing something else that is particularly effective?  Or do you have questions about this post or spam in general?  Let me know!  At some point I’ll post an update of my experience with my challenge/response test.

Posted by Dan Baldwin on 06/28/2003 at 11:23 AM in Miscellaneous
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