How I finally freed myself from spam… for now…

I had written back in October about OnlyMyEmail.com, and how great it was. Well I’d been meaning to write a follow-up for quite a while now, and here it is:

OnlyMyEmail.com sucks. No really, they really suck. Really.

Here’s the problem: Because I have so many email addresses, some of them going back more than 10 years, I get loads and loads of spam. Something like 2,000-3,000 messages a day. That’s on the order of 100-200 times as many legitimate emails that I’d like to actually have a chance to read.

OnlyMyEmail was great while it lasted, which was all of two days. I quickly exceeded their quota, and despite repeated attempts to contact someone there to see if it was possible to pay more money to remove the limitations, they dumped me. I couldn’t reach anyone there. Apparently this isn’t a problem that’s unique to me.

Bottom line: If you don’t care at all about customer service, don’t mind outages (possibly permanent), and don’t take your email communication too seriously, then OnlyMyEmail.com may be for you. If you get a lot of spam and really, really need your email to work, forget it.

So I searched around for a few days at the end of October, and found Runbox.com. They’re not free, but quite reasonable at $40/year. They support POP, IMAP, have web-mail, and even have a site for small-screen clients like PDAs, and give you 10GB of email storage — more than most people will ever use. They’re based in Norway, so I have some hope that they take privacy pretty seriously. Their servers are pretty responsive most of the time, despite the location. And best of all: they filter spam. Not as well, mind you, as OnlyMyEmail.com did (for the two days that I was actually able to use it), but pretty well.

After a few days though, a new problem became evident. I seemed to have two choices, depending on how I configured the Runbox spam filters: Either I would get a bunch of false-positives every day (meaning I still had to scan all the spam anyway), or if I turned off the learning filter I’d still get a few hundred spams every day. Sometimes more, depending on how well the Runbox people were keeping up with the spammers.

For a couple of months, I opted to scan the Spam mailbox once or twice a day. Sorting the mailbox by subject, I found it was relatively easy to scan for real email, since spam messages often use the same, or very similar subjects. Most even start with Re: which made it even easier.

But it still was far from perfect. If I missed something that was mistakenly labeled as spam, it might take a full day or more before I saw it and was able to respond. And I was still spending far too much of my time looking at spam — that’s what I wanted to avoid in the first place. At least it wasn’t taking up disk space on my machine.

Now though, just over four months later, I think I’ve finally got a working solution. It involves no fewer than four sets of filters, spread out over three different mail services, and my own computer. Here’s how it works:

How I seem to have finally solved my spam problem:

My main inbox is on a UserLand server. With a little help, I was able to set up some filters using a .procmailrc script for my account, that splits my incoming mail into three groups: definitely spam, low-risk, and high-risk, handling each group differently.

1. According to my script, a message is definitely spam when it has a keyword in the Subject, To or From fields which I know I don’t want to ever see: viagra, fuck, penis, virgin, etc. These all go immediately to /dev/null before ending up in any mailbox anywhere. Poof — gone. This accounts for about 60% of the spam I was receiving, off the top. But it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to have to spend a hour every day maintaining my .procmailrc either — what a pain.

2. Next, I identified low risk mail and let it through — partly. Low risk mail is any mail which matches my username (or one of them) in the To or CC fields: jake, jsavin, etc. These messages are forwarded to my Runbox account, where spamassassin and other filters catch almost all remaining spam that’s addressed to these users. Apple Mail then downloads my mail from Runbox (via IMAP), and filters it yet again, using its own trainable spam filter. Also, since the server at UserLand is forwarding directly to Runbox (instead of having Runbox log into my UserLand POP account), I get my email almost immediately, and don’t have to worry about Runbox being able to connect to UserLand’s POP server.

3. But what about all the other mail — the accounts I have on other domain names, and the catch-all throw-away addresses I use when signing up for stuff. This qualifies as high risk email. High risk mail is anything that’s left over after 1 & 2 above. High-risk mail is sent via my .procmailrc straight to my Gmail account, where Google’s gigantic distributed network of servers filters out even more spam. What’s still considered legitimate by Google is then downloaded by Apple Mail (via POP), and filtered yet again on my own computer.

What’s the net result, you ask? Well, in the last few days, I’ve gotten three or four false-positives (out of about 250 legitimate messages), and filtered out about 5,500 spam messages. Even better, I’m 99% sure that the spam being caught by Gmail will contain very few false-positives, so I won’t have to check there very often. What’s more, I’ve only seen about 50 spam messages caught at Runbox on any given day. That’s a whole lot less email to scan for missed messages than 2,000+ a day.

Oh happy, happy, joy, joy!!!

Is it true? Can I finally be nearly spam-free, if only fleetingly?
One can only hope.

One Comment

  1. said:

    funny..not funny that you’re getting all that spam but funny i get it and your happy joy about getting rid of most of it in a round about scattered way..i get alot of spam too and i have to sort through my spam every few days to just make sure I’m not missing anyone’s legitmate email..wish I had time to work out a scattered way to relieve some of my spam – my yahoo account catches alot of it – never thought about sending it through my gmail account too :)

    February 21, 2006

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