Joined: 18 September 2004
If you've been sitting around waiting for the perfect spam tool or the perfect anti-spam legislation to appear, save your derriere. Spam is a moving target, technologically, geographically and socially, and no single solution is going to stop the flow any time soon.
That doesn't mean you should throw up your hands, abandon email and give in to the spammers. It merely means you need to find an interim solution that makes spam manageable, voice your support for anti-spam technologies and policies, and stop buying products advertised via spam.
Despite the increasing flow of spam, there are some signs of hope. The recent trend towards spam that appears to contain nothing but gibberish is one indication that spammers are starting to feel the pinch. That gibberish is an attempt by spammers to sidestep Bayesian filters (more on this below).
The money being poured into anti-spam technologies, too, is helping to tip the scales of the technology battle between spammers and spam blockers. The realisation that spam could not only cripple email - a tool the world has become all-too-dependent upon - but also cause a significant strain on the Internet itself is impetus enough to get the really big guns working on a solution. The solution's not there yet, but serious money is being poured into finding one.
Whether, as Bill Gates asserted recently, spam will vanish within the next two years... well, let's just say I'm not putting my money on it, certainly not based on the solutions proposed by Mr G. And I wouldn't put too much faith in CAN-SPAM legislation, either. Remember, CAN-SPAM comes from the same bunch of people who designed anti-telemarketing legislation which specifically exempts their own telemarketing campaigns; it also undermined stronger anti-spam legislation already introduced in California. In fact, unless a global political strategy emerges which emphasises the value of privacy over commerce (and how likely is that to happen?), all anti-spam legislation appears doomed to be little more than a Band-Aid placed on an arterial rupture.
Even if Bill Gates proves correct and spam disappears by 2006, that's two years too long than I'm prepared to wait, and I'm sure most of you feel the same.
So it comes down to choosing from existing spam blocking technologies. Fighting spam solely through technological methods results in an escalating battle: The anti-spammers develop a tool to block spam; the spammers respond with a new twist which successfully defeats the tool; the anti-spammers add another approach; again the spammers develop a new wrinkle to avoid detection. And so it goes.
For us, this escalating battle means we need to regard anti-spam tools much as we do anti-virus tools: They're only as good as their last update, and a multi-pronged approach is likely to provide the best defence.
Many of the most recent programs incorporate a range of technologies, recognising that no single technology stands a chance in the face of the rabid cunning of the spammers.
In the coming issues, we'll look at the range of anti-spam technologies and options available to individual users and give the nod to the spam blockers we at Woody's Watch have chosen in our own anti-spam battles.
So, what's with all these spams which appear to contain nothing but gibberish? It's as if Lewis Carroll had turned his hand to penning spam, but unfortunately the result is nowhere nearly as entertaining as his Jabberwocky.
We've received email from lots of readers wondering what on earth is going on. After all, it's one thing to get a spam whose subject reads "Get your FR3e V-Y-@-G-R-@", quite another to get a message which consists entirely of nonsense. The former is clearly an attempt to evade simple spam filters that search for trigger words and phrases. But what can the latter hope to achieve?
Take a look at one of those spammerwockies. You'll probably find an image or a one-line sales pitch lurking within. That's what the spammer hopes you'll spot (and respond to). And it's what the spammer hopes your spam-blocking software will fail to spot.
All the rest of the message - the nonsense words and phrases - is an attempt to fool both simple pattern-matching filters and the far more sophisticated Bayesian filters. Bayesian filters look for spam-like subjects, words and phrases and balance those spam indicators with 'anti-spam' indicators in the same message. This holistic approach judges each email in its entirety, instead of simply blocking on the basis of trigger words. The spammerwocky tries to sneak through the filter by subsuming its core message within an apparently 'benign' context.
The technique works - sometimes - but only when the content of the spam is so thoroughly disguised it almost makes no sense to send it. Still, some people click on links in this type of spam, and that's enough to keep the spammers' hopes alive.
At some point, though, the pay off - those who will click even an entirely nonsense message - is going to be so small spammers will be defeated, at least on this front. That's why those spammerwockies are a welcome sight: they are an indication that at least in one section of the battle against spam the blockers are getting the upper hand.
WEEer J.G. writes:
A short time ago I did a clean install of my entire hard drive. In preparation for this I saved all my Outlook 2000 file folders and noted the settings I had changed over time. When it came time to reinstall Microsoft Office 2000 (including Outlook 2000), everything went along without a hitch. However, I think that at some point while setting up the starting screen for Outlook I inadvertently selected a theme and now I cannot seem to be able to change it. Every time I try to click on the "Customize Outlook Today" button, nothing happens. In the past, I relied heavily upon the Outlook Today screen to track my upcoming appointments, etc. Any assistance you may be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.
Chances are it's not the act of choosing a theme that has caused your problems. More likely you've fallen afoul of a patch for Internet Explorer known to disable the Customize Outlook Today button. The culprit is Critical Update 813489 for Internet Explorer. Microsoft has a workaround for the problem, but the workaround partly disables Critical Update 813489, leaving your system open to what's called an "information-disclosure vulnerability" (that's Microsoft-speak for a big hole someone can use to spy on your interaction with a Web site).
The workaround involves adding a new DWORD value to your registry. Don't try this if you're unfamiliar with registry editing. Probably the best thing to do is to add the DWORD value, make any changes you need to make to Outlook Today, and then remove the DWORD value. The Microsoft Knowledge Base article details a method for exporting the DWORD value. If you follow the steps in this section, you'll be able to create two registration files which will let you automate the process of adding the DWORD value to your registry and removing it from the registry.
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