Are new Yahoo, Hotmail spam filters better than past efforts?

Some companies are beginning to claim partial victories in the war on bulk junk email. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that some users are backing up those claims.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
Even as the costs of battling spam mount, some companies are beginning to claim partial victories in the war on bulk junk email. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that some users are backing up those claims.

In recent months, both Yahoo Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail have implemented filters to cut down on Hotmail criticized over spam filter woes the amount of unsolicited commercial email, commonly referred to as "spam," that users get in their free, Web-based email accounts. Spam has earned the ire of email consumers, faced with the time-consuming task of separating and deleting junk email, and Internet service providers and corporations, whose networks and personnel are taxed by spam influxes.

Hotmail's implementation of a controversial spam filter met with disappointing results, according to users who did not notice a significant reduction in spam following the implementation.

But Yahoo's anti-spam measure, launched last week, has met with a better reaction.

"We are getting very positive feedback," said Lisa Pollock, senior producer for Yahoo Mail. "We are seeing both qualitatively and quantitatively that our system is working, and we are very pleased with that."

Several Yahoo Mail users contacted by CNET News.com seconded Pollock's view, saying the system was successfully sorting the vast majority of spam email into a folder called "Bulk Email."

"It's really awesome because I get maybe 20 emails a day, and [it's] mostly junk mail," said longtime Yahoo Mail user Daniel Nikaiyn. "It's saved me a lot of time splitting up junk mail and my email. Now I don't have to sift through them."

Nikaiyn said Yahoo's filter was about 90 percent accurate, letting a few spam emails slip through to the in-box.

Yahoo declined to disclose how its filter works, citing spammers' notorious and so far successful efforts to work around whatever obstacles are thrown in front of them. But two companies in the anti-spam business have articulated a similar strategy in blocking spam, which is to entrap spammers with decoy email boxes.

Both Brightmail and security software company Trend Micro employ the decoy method, setting up inactive email boxes around the Net and planting their addresses in chat rooms, bulletin boards and other places where spammers typically harvest addresses. When a spam mailing starts to make its way around the Net, the system immediately blocks that message from reaching users' in-boxes.

Brightmail, launched in October 1997 by former AOL Internet product manager Sunil Paul, charges ISPs and corporations for its services. Corporations pay about $10 per end user per year, while large ISPs pay less.

Customers include AT&T WorldNet and USA.net, although neither has released the service in full yet. Corporate customers include Motorola, according to sources. Brightmail would not confirm that, but Paul acknowledged that the company is aggressively targeting the corporate market.

"We're getting traction with the corporate world and have been focusing on the Fortune 500 companies," Paul said.

Paul cited a Gartner Group study showing that the overall cost of spam to an ISP is $7.7 million per million users. Much of that cost comes from losing customers fed up with spam.

"People aren't changing ISPs just because of spam, but it is a significant contributor to churn," Paul said.

Representatives from anti-spam advocacy group the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) acknowledged that decoy blocking systems like Brightmail's and Trend Micro's are effective, but they expressed reservations about the price tag attached to such services.

"I think that the amount of money that Brightmail costs is an unfortunate example of the true cost of spam," said CAUCE spokesman John Mozena. "It shows the length that companies will go to get spam off their networks."

Although Brightmail may cost a top-tier ISP millions of dollars per year, Brightmail's customers appear to think it's worth it.

AT&T WorldNet, with 1.8 million subscribers, started using Brightmail on a trial basis a month ago and plans a full release by mid-January. The ISP is doing a survey to determine Brightmail's effectiveness.

"The initial results look really good," said WorldNet spokesman Ritch Blasi. "It's eliminating a lot of the spam. The cost of doing this is going to be a lot less than the cost of fighting spam, with what we have to do to try to stop it. This is really the most cost-effective way to attack it."

Blasi cited hindrances such as the costs involved in managing the influx of spam, but more significant than that are problems with customer care and retention, he said. A successful release of an anti-spam system would be as much a marketing tool as a cost-cutter, he added.

Trend Micro, more widely known for its virus-detection software, launched its anti-spam decoy system more than a year ago, in November 1998. With decoys dispersed around the Net and a spam analysis center located in the Philippines, Trend Micro claims to block about 85 percent of incoming spam for its corporate clients, which it said number between 300 and 500.

Trend Micro would not disclose its total number of customers or pricing information.