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The Fight Against Spam, Part 2
Pages: 1, 2

Does it Work with Other Languages?

Mail is often criticized because the system it uses "only reads English." Nothing could be further from the truth. Mail does accurately flag messages in other languages. The corpus on which it is pre-trained uses mail in different languages, and it is just as trainable in German or Japanese as it is in English texts -- thanks to a few other cool Apple technologies regarding tokenization that go beyond the scope of this article.



This Sounds Complex, Should I Disable it on my iBook?

Don't worry. Even though Junk Mail relies on very complex technologies, it's very efficient and easy on the computer, even on slower G3 laptops.

This is a good example of expanding capability without sacrificing performance, by writing good code.

An Introduction to Using "Junk Mail"

As soon as you launch Mail, the Junk Mail filter is turned on in "training mode." As long as training mode is on, Mail will display all the messages you receive in your inbox, including the junk. However, potential spams will be marked with cute, paper-bag icons and will appear in a disgustingly distinctive brown color, making spotting the unwanted messages easy.

If you notice a message that is incorrectly flagged as junk, simply open it and click on the "Not junk" button located at the top of the message in the brown banner. If you notice a message that should be marked as spam but isn't, select it and use the "Message" menu to "Mark it as junk mail." Alternatively, you can place a "Junk" button in your toolbar; simply use the "View" menu to customize it.

As soon as you mark a mail as Junk or Not Junk, the junk mail filter will fine-tune its analysis, learning what you consider to be junk and what it should let go through to your inbox. This simple-looking learning capability is actually what makes Mail amazing and very different from its competitors.

For most people, Viagra ads are spam and gardening-related messages are updates from their grandparents. But what if your grandparents like to talk about Viagra and you are being spammed by a gardening service? While most other programs won't be able to adapt to your situation, Mail will, and effortlessly.

Once you're satisfied with the accuracy of its analysis, you can switch it to "automatic" mode.


Figure 2. Mail's junk preferences.

As soon as automatic mode is turned on, any mail flagged as junk mail will be moved to a special Junk mailbox. Of course, you are still responsible for what happens to this mail. Should it be deleted? Kept for archiving> We'll see in a minute how to fine-tune this behavior.

Turning automatic mode on is a big step since it may prevent you from reading legitimate mails, especially if you don't check the Junk mailbox or you choose to delete your junk mails immediately. Although the number of false positives is extremely low (or, in most cases, null), you may want to add a signature to your mail or a note to your web site, stating that you use anti-spam filtering technologies. You can also ask that your potential correspondents resend emails if they do not receive answers in a certain timeframe.

Fine Tuning and Automating "Junk Mail"

In order to customize the filtering, use the "Mail" menu to open the Mail preferences and click on the "Junk Mail" button. Switching between "training" and "automatic" mode is as simple as selecting the corresponding radio button. As soon as you enter "automatic" you will see that Mail creates a new Junk mailbox with the same paper-bag icon. The following preferences are easily understandable. However, here are a few notes about what they can do:
  • Preventing messages that come from senders in your Address Book from being flagged as junk is probably a good choice. However, in some cases, you may not want to leave this feature on. Let's imagine that your aunt has your address but stores it on a virus-infected PC that sends your mail to spammers. In that case, applying filtering rules to the emails she seems to send to you may be a good idea.
  • The same applies to the Previous recipients. While this feature can usually be safely turned on, business users or users who deal with dozens of emails per day will probably want to have it off, to ensure maximum protection.
  • The fact that a message is addressed using your full name is in no way a warranty that it is legitimate. In fact, in my case, it is almost always a warranty that it isn't. Everyone I know calls me "F.J.", and only spammers who got my name off of a list use my real name.

The "Trust Junk Mail headers set by your Internet Service Provider" feature is great, but only as long as your provider uses standard junk-mail filtering options. Indeed, some ISPs use proprietary solutions that Mail doesn't know. If this is the case, you can create a special rule that scans the "Header" used by your provider to rate junk messages and decide whether it should be marked as junk or not -- a simple task that does not require any programming on your part.


Figure 3. Typical mail headers.

However, when turning this feature on, you will want to take into account how reliable your mail provider's filters are. Indeed, some of them are known for setting up paranoid filters that block all legitimate mails while some others let everything go through. Some of them now allow users to customize filters, a great step forward. In most cases, server-side junk-mail filtering features can be accessed through the provider's webmail interface, so it's worth having a look if you haven't checked in for awhile. You may actually find other nice features there. For example, the .Mac webmail allows you to set up a custom mail icon visible by all Mail.app users.

The "Advanced" button is extremely interesting. Do you remember the old days when Junk Mail was listed in the "Rules" category? Well, this button allows you to see junk-mail settings as a rule. For example, you could also set mail up to run an AppleScript when you receive mail. What about getting the headers of the message so that you can send them to your IT department? Or your email provider?

On a less ambitious scale, you can use this rule to mark junk mails as read automatically -- to avoid seeing the "unread messages" notifications while sorting through your legitimate mail. Play a specific sound as a reminder to have a look through your Junk Mail mailbox from time to time or, let's be crazy, switch the mail color from brown to purple.

What Should I Do with Spam Once It's Flagged?

We've seen that Mail.app will put flagged mail into a special mailbox called "Junk." However, your messages will stay there unless you specifically tell Mail what to do with them.

In order to do so, check the "Special Mailboxes" tab of your various account preferences. It contains a popup menu that allows you to specify what should be done to this mailbox.

Usually, storing junk messages on the server is a bad idea since it will increase the chances that your server will be cluttered and that your mailbox will reach full capacity, effectively bouncing legitimate messages back.

Deleting Junk messages when "Quitting Mail" would be my setting of choice since you probably don't want to keep them on your hard drive for too long. However, you should remember to check this mailbox for false positives before quitting Mail. Otherwise, they go unnoticed and may be deleted without you ever seeing them.

It sounds silly, but I suggest you use this opportunity to make sure Trash (in Mail.app) is set up well and that deleting messages from your various accounts does not simply move them to another folder on the server.

Since the trash setting is applied evenly to all of your accounts, you can set up separate rules to manage them individually if need be. For example, you may want to delete junk mail from your Home account automatically -- since your friends probably won't be too mad if you miss one of their healthy cooking tips. But you should purge your business account every week, so that you have a chance to scan it and avoid missing a potential customer.

Next Time

I'll wrap up this series on Friday with a closer look at techniques for applying rules, address masking, and some general tips to confound spammers. See you then!

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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