September 25, 2003

A New Outlook on Spam and Web Bugs

The New York Times has a fairly balanced review of Microsoft Office 2003 by one of my favorite technology columnists, David Pogue.

Essentially, his review says that other than adding DRM (Digital Rights Management), and some minor enhancements, there's nothing new worth noting in the core office programs (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint).

However, Outlook 2003 is a completely different story, if you'll pardon the pun. I've been following Outlook 2003's development, and there have been many noteworthy improvements. While the new 3-column view sounds interesting, it's far down the page on my long Outlook wishlist. Happily, several of my Mt. Everest-sized pet peeves with Outlook 2002 appear to have been addressed per Mr. Pogue, namely:

"Outlook now comes with excellent automatic spam filtering. In my two-week test, it nabbed about 95 percent of junk mail as spam yet never flagged a legitimate message as spam. It makes a huge difference.

Furthermore, Outlook now lets you build a blacklist (people or companies whose e-mail you always want treated as spam) or a whitelist (people whose e-mail you want to let through; everything else goes to the Junk folder).

Finally, Outlook thwarts a common spammer tactic by blocking graphics that appear to be embedded into a message but in fact get fed to you from a Web site somewhere. You see only the text of such messages. (Outlook doesn't block traditional attached images, so you won't miss out on your second cousin's latest baby pictures. Furthermore, if you do want to see a blocked image, a couple of mouse clicks calls it up.)

By rejecting these graphics, Outlook saves you time, because graphics are big and slow to download. It also shields you from unwelcome free samples of pornographers' wares.

As a bonus, blocking such pictures prevents Outlook from notifying the spammer's Web site that not only is your e-mail address valid, but you're a sucker who actually opens and looks at spam."

Finally!!! With Outlook 2002, I've been seeking a workable solution to blocking web bugs -- for the very reason listed in the previous paragraph. While I've turned off the preview pane and am pretty good in identifying spam prior before opening it, every so often a particular spam message is crafted to look like it could be legit -- spammers just get trickier every day. Almost invariably, opening it up results in the same spam-induced propagation: the very slight pause while it fetches the web bug graphic from the remote server, logs my address, and adds me to the list of people who likewise said "Here I am, I'm a live e-mail account, please send me a lot more spam, thanks!", simply by opening or previewing that bug-laden message. Argghhh.

So far I've found several ways to turn off images in HTML-formatted e-mails in Outlook 2002, but they're all pretty kludgy, especially for non-techies, and some are not easily toggled on and off on demand (unless you enjoy closing Outlook, swapping Windows registry settings, and relaunching Outlook after the change). Also, some solutions strip ALL images from all e-mails when opened, which of course makes a number of desired e-mail newsletters difficult to view in the way intended.

Thus I found the best way in 2002 is not to disable images at all, but to add the "AutoPreview" button to your Outlook toolbar. Then, before you open a seemingly legit message, you can briefly turn on AutoPreview (this is not the same thing as Preview Pane, which should be avoided, trust me) to display the first few lines of text without fetching the web bug, the remote graphic file. It's not perfect, but it definitely helps.

So say what you will about Microsoft and their lack of innovation and security in many of their products, including the core Office suite, and I'll most likely agree with you. However, regarding Outlook 2003, this is one small shining moment where I actually look forward to a new release from Redmond.

[via beSpacific, thanks Sabrina]

Topic(s):   Legal Technology
Posted by Jeff Beard
Comments

I tested spam filter from Outlook 2003. I don't like how it works. I use spam filter SpamBully for Outlook from http://www.spambully.com , that have a lot of futures and I can learn it right away. SpamBully blocks over 99% of spams.

Posted by: digital camera at June 25, 2004 03:39 AM