December 20, 2002
"Spam," the electronic equivalent of junk mail, is on the rise. In recent years, checking your e-mail has become a potentially time-consuming process of sifting through messages and deleting the often-offensive solicitations that comprise most spam.
While such messages are usually easy to identify, disreputable merchants are resorting to increasingly devious methods to get you to open their solicitations, such as including your name in the subject line or supplying a seemingly legitimate subject line. On an average day, Tulane students and employees are bombarded with more than 40,000 spam e-mails.
"It's the people-time costs that we worry about more than the band-width cost," says John Lawson, vice president for technology and chief information officer. "There is some cost to storing all the messages, but it's really the people-time, not only for us in Technology Services but users dealing with that volume of mail."
According to Lawson, the volume of spam routed through Tulane mail servers has increased in the last year. Currently, spam comprises about 35 percent of messages sent to Tulane e-mail addresses. That figure includes both the "legitimate" spam, such as promotional mailings a user may have signed up for, and the illegitimateand often offensivejunk. While reputable companies include a form to allow users to remove their names from their mailing lists, more dishonorable operators use such forms to confirm that an e-mail address is valid.
The first step in guarding against spam, Lawson says, is protecting your e-mail address. While some companies collect directory information without the consent of users, a significant percentage of spam comes from vendors who require e-mail addresses when downloading software, making an online purchase or registering a product.
Users should be careful to read the fine print and uncheck any box that indicates their agreement to receive promotional offers. Despite the nuisance, Lawson says e-mail addresses are considered public information and any attempts to combat spam need to be balanced against the need to ensure that mail users receive all the mail directed to them, legitimate and otherwise.
In August, Technology Services introduced a new service designed to help users manage the proliferation of junk mail. Tulane Email SpamAssassin performs a range of tests on the text of incoming mail and assigns each message a score indicating its likelihood of being spam. If a message earns a score of 10 or higher, its subject line is appended with asterisks and its "Tulane SPAM" score.
"It's a best-effort way to identify and label spam," says Tim Deeves, director of network services. "In our experience and from what we gather from other institutions that use it, it's very effective."
SpamAssassin is a fairly sophisticated system that uses a variety of techniques to beat spammers at their own game. It checks the e-mail headers for forged identities or other ways of masking the sender. It scans the body of the message for words, phrases and character strings often associated with spam. It checks the message against continually updated databases of known spammers. The result is an effective means of identifying spam.
Deeves recommends using the filtering or rules capability of your e-mail program to route messages flagged as spam to a special mailbox the user can then sift through at leisure. Technology Services help desk (862- 8888) can assist in setting up filters and a separate mailbox. The best way to deal with spam, Deeves concludes, is to let SpamAssassin do the work. And for those who continue to see red when messages appear hyping cheap toner cartridges or free mortgage quotes, Lawson has more philosophic advice.
"Don't get upset. Spam is here. We're going to try to give people tools to help deal with it, but the delete key is always nearby."
Mark Miester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 email@example.com