This article is intended to describe the purpose of email spam management protection and the types of protection available and the advantages or disadvantages of using one type of protection over another.
Since the invention of email communications the world has been plagued by unwanted Spam emails. We have experienced various degrees of Spam which have resulted in being simply annoying to potentially being damaging on a wide scale.
Spam has been used to market and advertise, but others have abused email technology by exploiting it for more threatening purposes. Spam has been used to trick people into providing personal information, access to banking information, credit card information, and to spread viruses through tainted file attachments and fake web links. It’s painfully obvious that we need to have methods in place to protect ourselves from such unbiased attacks. I will explain some of the methods available to everyone today and how effective they may or may not be. Some of these methods are free.
Methods of Email Spam Management Protection
1) Common Sense (Potential fourth and Last layer of defense, Spam has reached your inbox) – I consider this one of the best defenses against the threat of Spam. The well trained eye can pick up on many details in an email that may otherwise lead to disaster if overlooked. We have no doubt all seen those questionable emails stating that you have unclaimed money from a distant uncle or have been chosen as the beneficiary of the estate of a recently deceased rich man with no heirs. If you were keen enough to ignore them, good for you, or perhaps you were burned once and learned the lesson the hard way! You know that it is better to be safe than sorry and if something doesn’t feel right check it thoroughly.
Here are some things you should avoid doing…
- Never reply to an email with your personal banking or credit card information, even if it says it’s from an organization you use, such as a bank.
- Never open attachments, containing compressed files (.zip) or program executable files (.exe) from anyone without checking with them first to confirm that it is safe and they did in fact send it.
- Never click on a link in an email without hovering over it first and preview the actual address of the link. If the link in the email says it is from the Government of Canada, but the link actually points to something at Joe’s Barber Shop, well you know it’s fake and should not be trusted.
2) Mail Client Software filtering (Potential third layer of defense, Spam has reached your mail software) – Most mail software such as Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird have their own built in limited Spam filtering and this is also true for online Mailboxes such as Gmail, Hotmail and so on.
These are very basic filtering processes and simply attempt to guess which emails you receive are most likely Spam emails. There may be several things they look for in the emails such as known spam senders, email servers, IP addresses, keywords, links and attachments found in the email addresses, the subject lines, the message content and information in the hidden email headers. Generally, they do a good job at catching most spam and sorting it into a Spam folder for you to manually review later. Unfortunately nothing is perfect, and they sometimes miss the mark and mistake legitimate emails for spam moving them to the Spam folder as well. They may alert you to potential risks associated with spam, such as possible phishing emails, but they generally do not manage the threats for you leaving it up to your “Common Sense” to discern good from bad.
3) On-Premise Spam Management Servers or Appliances (Potential second layer of defense, Spam has reached your internal spam management server) – This type of spam protection attempts to detect and catch spam at the mail server point of entry within your network, and either block it from reaching your mailbox on your computer or filter and mark it as spam before it reaches your computer. For example, Microsoft Exchange Server has a basic level of spam filtering. A popular free server based spam filter is SpamAssassin ( http://spamassassin.apache.org/).
The downside to this layer of protection is that it means Spam has already infiltrated your network and if the Spam contains a virus, it could potentially infect the server and spread across the network if not properly protected by the spam program or your antivirus software. It is certainly better than having no spam protection. The more layers of protection, the better.
4) Third party “Cloud” Spam management Services (Potential first layer of defense, Spam has reached an external spam management server) – This type of spam protection exists outside your network, on another company’s spam management server and detects, blocks, and filters your spam before it reaches your network. Spam gets trapped, flagged and marked to give the user the opportunity to manage the spam before it reaches them. This involves giving the user access to a Web management portal. The user can blacklist or whitelist spam and release those that they trust. The user has more feature rich control over the management of their spam. It also contains a reporting component which periodically sends an email report to the user listing the currently “trapped” spam for their review. These services are monthly paid subscription based. One popular example is the Spambrella service. https://www.spambrella.com/ available through Triella (www.triella.com).
5) Internet Protection Software Packages (Spam threat has reached your computer) – There are many premium malware and antivirus software packages that include email spam protection, these are typically extra features that tend to carry additional costs for the upgraded protection. What they attempt to do is protect you from threats such as viruses contained in email attachments, and against phishing attempts, identify theft and more by scanning emails when they are downloaded to the computer and blocking and/or quarantining the threats by deleting the file attachments or preventing links from being clicked on. It’s important to know that just because you may have basic antivirus protection does not mean you are protected against other forms of malware and Spam threats. Generally you need to pay for these added features, if they are being offered.
None of these methods are ever perfect, and therefore sometimes it’s best to have more than one in place in case something gets past one level of protection, it may get caught by the next level. There is also a caveat to having too much protection as well, and that could be that legitimate mail has more hurdles to get past in order to reach your mail box successfully.
Paul Comtois is a Client Support Specialist at Triella, a technology consulting company specializing in providing technology audits, planning advice, project management and other CIO-related services to small and medium sized firms. Paul can be reached at 647.426.1004. For additional articles, go to www.triella.com/publications. Triella is a VMware Professional Partner, Microsoft Certified Partner, Citrix Solution Advisor – Silver, Dell Preferred Partner, Authorized Worldox Reseller and a Kaspersky Reseller.
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