Reduce spam using free software

Ian richards By Ian “Gizmo” Richards

Today I’m going to show you a way to reduce to almost nothing the quantity of spam e-mail you receive using free products and services.

The technique I’ll outline will not only zap your spam but will let your real mail pass unhindered while imposing a minimal processing load on your PC.

The free and easy way to stop spam cold

Does this sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not. I have long used the very same technique to filter my public e-mail box, which attracts up to 1000 spam e-mails a day. Of these, only three or four manage to creep through to my inbox. Additionally, so few of my real e-mails get falsely classified as spam that I don’t even bother checking my spam box for misplaced mail.

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That’s the good news. The bad news is the technique works best for users of Outlook Express, Outlook, and Windows Mail, though it could possibly be adapted to other clients. Webmail users are, unfortunately, out of luck.

The key to the technique is the use of two spam filters rather than one — the filter built into Google’s Gmail service and SPAMfighter. Neither of these filters has the best performance available for detecting spam. However, by chaining them together, their overall spam-detection rate is outstanding.

That’s because each of the two detects spam using a different technique, so the effectiveness is additive rather than overlapping.

When it comes to not classifying your real e-mail as spam, both Gmail and SPAMfighter have outstanding performance. And that, folks, is a very important characteristic for a spam filter. Unless, that is, you enjoy browsing through hundreds of spam e-mails to pick out your missing correspondence.

For tips on keeping spam off your mail servers, see Mark Edwards’s column in today’s content.

Two top spam filters take different approaches

The Gmail filter is based on the well-known Postini filter widely used by corporations. It’s a multifactorial filter that takes into account many different variables to determine whether mail is spam or ham (real mail). It’s normally a commercial service, but by using Gmail you effectively get Postini for free.

In contrast, the SPAMfighter network-based filter uses the judgment of more than five million users worldwide to determine whether e-mail is spam. It’s a commercial service, but if you are a private user and prepared to tolerate a short message promoting SPAMfighter at the end of your outbound e-mails, then you can use it for free.

SPAMfighter is available only for Outlook Express, Outlook, and Windows Mail. Users of other e-mail clients will need to consider a replacement to use as their second filter. I won’t be covering that possibility in this article.

Step 1: Use your webmail as your spam filter

If you already use Gmail as your main e-mail account and you have POP3 access enabled for that account, you can skip straight to Step 2. If you don’t use Gmail, set up an account. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it’s free.

Once you have created your Gmail account, enable it for POP3 access by following these steps described on Google’s site. This is an important step because you’ll use POP3 to retrieve your e-mail from Gmail.

Note that you won’t be using this Gmail account to replace your normal e-mail address but rather as a transit stop. The idea is to funnel the e-mail from your normal account into Gmail and then pick it up from Gmail using your normal e-mail client after it has been filtered at Gmail.

Next, use Gmail’s Mail Fetcher to forward messages from your normal e-mail account to your Gmail account. Google offers step-by-step instructions.

Mail Fetcher works only with e-mail accounts that use POP3. If your normal e-mail account doesn’t have POP3 access, you’ll have to use the settings in your ISP’s e-mail control panel to forward your POP3 messages to your Gmail account.

Gmail's mail fetcher settings
Figure 1. Set Gmail to retrieve messages from your POP3 account via the service’s Mail Fetcher settings.

Step 2: Install your client spam filters

SPAMfighter’s setup is straightforward; just make sure you close your e-mail client before you start the process. If you run into trouble, consult this tutorial.

Incidentally, for the first 30 days you use the program, SPAMfighter appends no ads to your outgoing e-mail. After that, you can pay U.S. $29 to continue using the program without ads or do nothing, in which case the ads will start appearing. I suggest you opt for the latter.

Once you have installed SPAMfighter, start your e-mail client. If all is well, you’ll see a new toolbar in your e-mail client. Once it’s there, you’re ready for the next step.

Step 3: Tie your POP3 client to your webmail

Google provides excellent POP3 configuration instructions for Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail.

Do remember that you must have configured your Gmail account for POP3 access.

Step 4: Test your spam double-filter

Now any mail that goes to your normal e-mail account will be redirected to your Gmail account. Also, your e-mail client should have a new account that collects your e-mail from your Gmail account. Your mail will thus be spam-filtered twice: First at Gmail and then again locally by SPAMfighter.

That’s the theory, anyway. Be sure to test the system first by sending an e-mail to your standard e-mail address. Ten minutes later, pick it up from your Gmail account using your e-mail client.

If it’s working, you may wish to disable your normal e-mail account in the e-mail client. If you don’t, you run the risk of picking up your mail before it is forwarded to Google, which defeats the purpose.

Once you have this working, you’ll be delighted with the results. Almost all spam will be eliminated from your inbox yet your real mail will arrive unaffected.

I’ve found the results using this two-filter system to be better than those obtainable using any single spam filter. And the best news is that the technique doesn’t cost a cent.

Ian “Gizmo” Richards is senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of the Support Alert Newsletter, which merged with Windows Secrets in July 2008. Gizmo alternates the Best Software column each week with contributing editor Scott Spanbauer.