Outlook: Strain out spam and safeguard senders

Katherine Murray

Spam is such a looming presence in the world’s email, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mail application that doesn’t include some sort of spam management.

Here are the tools and techniques available to Microsoft Outlook users for dealing with the onslaught.

Despite recent stories about major spam-site takedowns, you’ve no doubt noticed that the number of unwanted messages filling your inbox is undiminished. And improvements in spam filtering are, at best, just keeping up with a rising tide. According to a recent Kaspersky Lab report, spammers sent out 72.2 percent of all the world’s email this past April — up 2.1 points from March. Even more disheartening, the volume of junk mail containing malicious links jumped dramatically after the recent explosions in Boston and Texas. Spammers see disasters as excellent opportunities to fleece generous — but also unwary — citizens.

There was a bit of good news in the report: the number of phishing emails was down ever so slightly, and malicious files were found in just 2.4 percent of all emails.

For the most part, the report confirms what we probably already know: most of the unwelcome mail we receive is annoying but not malevolent. That said, it takes just one email harboring a dangerous attachment or link to wreak havoc on our systems.

I used Office 2013 and Outlook.com to illustrate the following tips and techniques for reducing unwanted email. But these steps also apply directly to Office 2010 and, in general, to earlier versions of Office and other email systems.

Keep mail coming from the good senders

Spamming is a sophisticated business. One common technique spammers use to target valid email addresses is to include a Web beacon inside the message. The process is relatively simple. In a typical email, images download and appear only when you open the message. When the Web server receives the instruction to send picture data, it knows the email address is active. The recipient then get lots more spam. (Spammers will often trade or sell their lists of valid addresses, which means you’re on the hook for a long time.)

Starting with Outlook 2007, Microsoft blocks Web beacons by default. Unless you say otherwise, images in Outlook messages appear as empty boxes with a red X inside. If you want to see the images, you have to select the “Click here to download pictures” box at the top of each message. That opens a short list of options such as Download Pictures, Add Sender to Safe Senders list, or Add the Domain {name} to the Safe Senders list. If you pick the latter two options, messages from that particular address will load any included images automatically from then on.

You can also use the Junk tool in Outlook’s ribbon to control how Outlook handles mail from specific email addresses or domains. Go to the ribbon’s Home tab and click Junk in the Delete group — a list of options will appear, as shown in Figure 1. (The illustration is of Office 2013, but you’ll see a similar list in Versions 2007 and 2010.)

Figure 1. Click Junk in the Delete group of the Home tab to display options for working with your messages.

You can add an entire domain to the Safe Senders list — everyone at WindowsSecrets.com, for example — by clicking Never Block Sender’s Domain.

Selecting Junk E-mail Options opens a toolbox of junk-mail controls. Under the Safe Senders tab, for example, you can quickly add, edit, or remove email addresses and domains. The Add option pops up a simple dialog box (see Figure 2) for entering trusted email addresses or domains. Email messages from those folks should always get through.

Figure 2. In the Add address or domain box, you can add the email address or domain of a sender you trust.

You can also manage the Safe Recipients list via the Junk E-mail Options dialog box. This list works the same way as Safe Senders, but here you add the email addresses of discussion lists and groups that send messages you want to receive.

On both the Safe Senders and Safe Recipients tabs, you have the option of importing lists of safe email addresses you’ve saved elsewhere. Click Import from File to open the import dialog box; navigate to the file; and click Open to add the addresses. The import file must be plain text, with one entry per line.

At the bottom of both the Safe Senders and Safe Recipients lists are two useful options that will add folks to your Safe Senders list automatically — saving you the trouble of adding them one by one.

The first checkbox — Also trust e-mail from my Contacts — might be selected by default. The second checkbox — Automatically add people I e-mail to the Safe Senders List — is self-evident. Unless there’s a good possibility you’ll email a spammer or someone of questionable character, you can click this checkbox with some confidence of safety.

Create safe lists for your Web-based mail

Microsoft’s Web-based email client — Outlook.com — also has tools for adding safe senders and blocking others. But you have far fewer options than in the desktop version of Outlook. For example, in Outlook.com, you must update its Safe Senders list one address at a time. You can’t even import a Safe Senders list you exported from the desktop version of Outlook.

(It would be convenient if the Safe Senders settings in Outlook could sync with Microsoft’s Web-based Outlook.com spam settings. That way, whether you’re managing mail through the desktop client or via a browser, all the same settings would apply.)

To find your Junk Mail lists in Outlook.com, click the gear icon in the top-right corner of Outlook’s toolbar, just to the left of your profile name, and then click More mail settings. In the Options page, choose Safe and blocked senders under the Preventing junk email heading.

As Figure 3 shows, Outlook.com divides your Safe Senders list into two categories: Safe senders and Safe mailing lists. Use the first one for individuals — friends, colleagues, clients, family, etc.; use the second for mailing lists — newsletters (such as Windows Secrets) and promotions you don’t want to end up in the Junk folder.

Figure 3. In Outlook.com, you add the contacts you want to hear from to Safe senders.

Permanently block unwelcome messages

If your Outlook client is connected to an MS Exchange server, most spam will never make it to your inbox. The same is generally true if you’re using Outlook as a local email client for some other mail service such as Hotmail or Gmail. There are also numerous third-party, spam-blocking add-ons for Outlook. They’re easily found with your preferred search engine.

For junk mail that does make it through, permanently blocking the sender is easy: select the message and either right-click or click Junk in the ribbon. Either way, you’ll get the options shown in Figure 1. Next, select Block Sender. This action adds the person or domain to your Blocked Senders list. Any future mail from a blocked sender should get dumped directly into the Junk E-Mail folder.

In Outlook.com, you have somewhat different junk-management options. Right-clicking or clicking Junk in the toolbar immediately sends the message to the Junk folder. If you’ve opened the message, clicking the down-arrow next to the toolbar/Junk tool opens three options: Junk, Phishing scam, or My friend’s been hacked! (See Figure 4.) Picking the second or third option apparently sends a report to Microsoft — where the sender is presumably added to some sort of master spammer list. An MS Support page, “Report abuse, phishing, or spam in Outlook.com,” has more information on ways to report unwanted emails.

Been hacked

Figure 4. Fortunately, the My friend's been hacked! option doesn't have an emoticon at the end.

Changing junk-mail options in Outlook

In Outlook, you can get tougher on spammers by increasing your level of protection in the Junk Mail settings, as shown in Figure 5. You can, for example, have items marked as junk go straight to the trash — no questions asked. (In Outlook.com, your options are far more limited. Blocked messages go automatically to the trash.)

Figure 5. Outlook Junk E-mail Options

By default, Outlook has the junk-mail protection set to Low — only the most obvious junk mail is automatically moved to the Junk folder (along with messages sent by those in your Blocked Senders list). Selecting High catches a larger percentage of junk mail but might also grab some messages that aren’t junk. Selecting Safe Lists Only dumps into the Junk folder all received mail that isn’t from someone listed in Safe Sender or Safe Recipients.

Another check box lets you “Permanently delete suspected junk e-mail instead of moving it to the Junk E-mail folder.” However, there’s a potential problem with this harder-line approach (even though my own spam frustration draws me to it). Once in a while, messages you’d like to receive will wind up in the junk mail folder. Yes, it’s an extra step, but it’s safer to review your junk folder before permanently deleting messages.

Managing safe and blocked senders admittedly requires some work on your part. But over time, it should give you a much cleaner — and safer — inbox. Who knows? One day your effort might save you from a hungry, malevolent worm that has designs on your data.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-06-06:

Katherine Murray

About Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray is the author of My Windows 8.1 (Que, 2013), Microsoft Office 2013 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2013), My Evernote (Que, 2012), and other non-fiction books on business, parenting, and Earth-care topics. She also coauthored, with Woody Leonhard, Green Home Computing for Dummies (Wiley 2009), and she writes and tweets (@kmurray230) about green-tech, wellness, and other social issues.