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Blocking spam before it slams you

A new, free service allows e-mail users to block spam before it gets in the door. Brian Livingston shows you how it's done.

    A new service aims to help e-mail users eliminate spam before it gets in the door.

    Mailshell.com, a privately held company that offers e-mail management services, plans to launch on Friday a new, free service that lets individuals create an unlimited number of e-mail addresses that can be turned on or off at will.

    Founded in 1999, the company has for some time offered free e-mail subscriptions that can be disabled at a person's request. Now Mailshell plans to allow all of a person's private e-mail to be handled via unique names.

    To use the service, an e-mail user--let's call him Max--first creates a new Web name at Mailshell, such as "max12.mailshell.com." Once this is done, Max can freely give out any number of different e-mail addresses. Immediate family members, for example, might send Max e-mail at "family@max12.mailshell.com."

    E-mails sent to such addresses are automatically forwarded to Max's unpublicized, "real" e-mail address. Alternatively, Mailshell can store the e-mail for later viewing, or Max can have messages deleted unread.

    Mailshell's Web-based options menu gives people a great deal of control over how incoming e-mails are handled:

    • "Caller I.D." addresses. When Max visits, say, SchlockyGizmos.com, he might inform the site that his e-mail address is "gizmos@max12.mailshell.com."

    If SchlockyGizmos shares this address with spammers, it's a simple matter for Max to shut the address down permanently.

    • "Disposable" addresses. Because Mailshell addresses can be set to expire automatically, they're ideal for any environment where an address may be seen by God-knows-who.

    Say it's mid-July and Max wants to ask for technical support in a public forum. He can say his address is "Aug2001@max12.mailshell.com," explaining that this address expires after Aug. 31. One month later, Max would start giving out "Sep2001" addresses, and so forth.

    In this way, Max reveals only addresses that expire 30 to 60 days hence. He'd receive any tech-support replies that responded to his immediate needs. But spammers who run automatic routines that scour the Web for addresses probably wouldn't get around to spamming Max's address before its expiration date.

    Providing unique e-mail addresses to different recipients, of course, is possible for any programmers who manage their own domain names or register multiple accounts with Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.

    Mailshell is easy to use. Once an account is set up, you don't need to configure Mailshell for new e-mail addresses before giving them out. You can make up any new address on a whim and it immediately works--unlike, say, a Hotmail address you haven't created yet. And Mailshell's interface is easy enough that you don't have to be a Webmaster to manage each address.

    Mailshell's introduction is timely because a widely used anti-spam filter, Brightmail, shut down its free service in June.

    CEO Tonny Yu says spam filtering is included with Mailshell, adding that the company will "never charge for the basic service." The company supports itself by selling three lines of advertising that appear at the end of incoming messages and by contracting with corporations to process their e-mail.

    But like chicken soup for a cold, Mailshell is a home remedy for spam--not a cure.

    Kee Hinckley, a principal in the spam-fighting Somewhere Consulting Group, says that "most of the ISPs I talk to say that spam bounces are as much of a strain on their infrastructure as the spam itself."

    Mailshell's Yu points out that most of the spam Mailshell grabs is deleted, not bounced back to harried ISPs. And he believes his free service will be needed even if anti-spam laws are toughened.

    "We've had laws making junk faxes illegal for years," Yu said, "but I get junk faxes every day."

    A Wired Watchdog update
    I reported in my May 25 column that CCI Camera City was the worst of eight e-tailers I tested for bait-and-switch tactics.

    Subsequent to the appearance of that report, CCI's Web site is no longer listed at CNET Shopper, according to Dan Miller, director of the service.

    Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.