Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2003 / 24 Shevat 5763

The war on spam continues

By Mark Kellner | This is becoming an obsession for me, this war on spam. I'm getting a bit worked up over it, and I'm spending a bit too much time trying to maintain a spam-free e-mail inbox. A 12-step program might be next: "Hello, my name is Mark and I'm a spam-fighter."

But before that happens, maybe, the volume of "unsolicited commercial e-mail," which is the Federal Trade Commission's term for spam, will diminish. More likely it won't, so my obsession continues - at least until the men with the butterfly nets come calling.

A couple of weeks ago, mention was made here of Spamfire Pro, a $29 program fvrom Matterform Media in New Mexico ( that runs on Macintosh computers. It was a great value at the time; now a new version (number 1.31) has been released with substantial improvements that make it an absolute imperative for anyone who sends or receives e-mail on a Mac.

For one, there's a better way to add "friends" to Spamfire's address book, to make sure that e-mails from your boss or parents get through, as opposed to those "Get Viagra Now!" junk messages. It can be done with one click on the main mail display screen. There's also a drop-down menu which lets you add a particular mailing list (such as the automated weekly newsletter from your stamp club) to the "good" list more easily. The program's "preferences" panel is also a click away and can be edited extensively to customize the software for your needs.

Perhaps the nicest feature in Spamfire Pro - added in just the past couple of weeks - is the "Revenge Menu." Sounding like something out of a Fox TV reality show, it's actually quite useful. Among the options are the reporting of a piece of spam to Matterform (this helps the publishers develop better e-mail filters), bouncing the message back to its sender (with a "user unknown" message in the hope you'll be dropped from their e-mail list), finding toll-free numbers in spam (so you can call and complain on their dime).

My favorite revenge feature is one I've only been able to use once: a "bug the Web Bug" device. As the Spamfire manual explains: "A WebBug is simply a kind of image embedded in an email message. ...As soon as you open a message with a WebBug in it, the spammer gets a notice that you have opened their spam. Now they know that your address is a valid address. What's more, they know that you don't delete spam, you actually open it and read it. This is an encouragement for the spammer to send you more and more spam, which they will surely do."

In other words, you can delete e-mail, ask the spammer to take you off their list, but, hey, it might be too late, because two or three minutes earlier, you told Mr. Spammer that your e-mail address is just waiting for more of the junk.

The program's solution is to "bug" the Web bugs in return. Spamfire strips out all the code that identifies you to a spammer, replacing it and replace it with a random string of gibberish, or any message you desire. The software then opens, in your browser, a custom Web page full of sterilized WebBugs. Spamfire periodically re-loads the Web page as long as it is open in your Web browser, sending the misinformation to the spammer's server. In doing this, it hopes to create extra work for the spammer, keep your information private and squish the Web bugs.

The makers caution that this software should be used responsibly and not for any malicious purpose. I haven't seen a similar "revenge" feature on Windows-based anti-spam programs, but would be grateful to learn of any. Meanwhile, the war continues, and vigilance remains the watchword.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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