0Spam.com review

After being annoyed with spam emails for quite some time now (who isn’t?), I was setting up some perimeter defenses to keep the viagra and penis enlargement offers out of my eyesight. SpamAssassin on my server (its threshold is set pretty high after it accidently filtered out some good mails); Firebird’s spam filters are working for me at home, and the SpamBayes Outlook Plugin is keeping me sane in the office. (Well, at least when it comes to email.)

But is it enough? The good the filters are, I still am overwhelmed by spam when I open up my webmail interface – the mail in there is already filtered by SpamAssassin but not yet processed by my client filters.

Or am I? A couple of weeks ago I’ve discovered 0Spam.com, a relatively new kid on the block. 0Spam’s concept is a tad bit different from the usual spam filters, since it’s making use of whitelists and blacklists. Here’s how it works.

Every ten minutes or so, the 0Spam gizmos check my POP3 account. If they find mails from senders which are not on my whitelist yet, they’re are moved to the 0Spam server, and the sender is sent a validation mail. Now the sender (assuming it’s a real person and not a viagra-powered penis enlargement robot) has a week to visit the link in the mail where s/he is presented with a validation code s/he has to enter manually. Once this is done, the 0Spam gizmos know the original mail came from an actual human, and the particular mail is moved from the 0Spam server back to my POP3 account. The sender is then marked as “good” for future reference, which means that once you’ve visited that validation link after mailing me, you won’t have to do it ever again. You’re validated once, and that’s enough.

There are a number of settings I can edit in my account. First of all, I can set the time span the sender is given to validation link - options range between 1 to 14 days. If the sender doesn’t visit the validation page within that time frame, the mail will be discarded. Second, I can set up more than just one POP3/Hotmail/Yahoo account to be checked periodically by ospam. Third, I can influence the auto-whitelisting behaviour (the above mentioned behaviour of automatically marking a validated sender as “good” for the future).

Entering whitelists and blacklists.

A so-called “whitelist” is a list of good senders, people or domains that are trusted. The email whitelist is a list of all email addresses that are allowed to send you mail, which is kept up to date automatically. However, you can import your address book into the email whitelist to make it easier for your contacts to verify their first email to you. The domain whitelist allows you to whitelist any message from one or more specified domains and the keyword whitelist lets any mail into your inbox that contains any word or phrase you provide. Just to make sure I don’t miss any important mails by people or sites I know, I’ve imported my address book, and fed a number of domain name fragments to the domain whitelist, for instance “amazon”, “bloglines.com”, “bungie”, “dreamhost.com” and “ebay”. As you can see, you don’t have to provide full domains; allowing “amazon” to mail me means mails from amazon.de, amazon.com, amazon.ca etc. go thru. You get the picture.

Blacklists are the exact opposite, but they have to be treated more carefully. You may configure 0Spam.com to block mail from your account if a message is from any address in the email blocklist or if it contains a word or phrase found in the keyword blocklist. It’s not recommended to use the email blocklist to block spammers, as most spammers use email addresses that change each time they send out mail. Sometimes it is nice to have a blocklist, tho. For instance, after receiving 20 “security patches” from “Microsoft Support” a day (I’m talking about the Blaster worm which was sending itself across the net using supportATmicrosoftDOTcom as fake sender), I’ve put the said mail address on the blocklist, and the mails were discarded as soon as 0Spam discovered them.

So far, the service works like a charm for me. The key to leading a care-free life with 0Spam without loosing all your friends is to import your address book and to think hard about what domains should be whitelisted. Remember - even Amazon and Ebay are using bots to send out different types of valid mails, and these bots will not make it thru the validation. Therefore you should definitely whitelist these domains you know for certain you’ll be receiving good mails from. I highly recommend skimming thru your mail client’s trash folder to see which sites are “rightfully” mailing you periodically.

The great thing about 0Spam is that it works with almost every email account on the planet. And you don’t even have to change anything in your mail client setup, because it’s not really sitting between you and your mailbox, it’s more like an automated watchdog doing its rounds roughly every ten minutes, grabbing everything from your mailbox that doesn’t seem to belong there.

By the way, if your mail client is always open and getting new mails from the server every minute or so, 0Spam will not work, because the mail client will most likely grab the mails before 0Spam can. Hence, the filtering will fail. So it’s recommended to make your mail client check for new messages every 30 minutes or once per hour. This might seem long, but remember, you’re not getting that much “good” mails anyways – you’re just not noticing it because of all the spam. ;)

Also, once 0Spam took a peek at a mail, it’ll be marked as read. I’m not sure whether or not this applies to Hotmail accounts as well, but it does for my plain old vanilla POP3 account. The mails are marked as unread in my mail client after downloading them from the server, tho, so I don’t think that’s a problem. It sure is not for me.

Alltogether I’m very happy with 0Spam. It’s doing a fine job. The service is running quite stable so far, even tho it’s still in development. And even if a spam mail is making it thru the 0Spam filter because it’s claiming to be from buyviagragoddammitATebayDOTcom - my Firebird will catch it client-side.

So, if you’re still having problems with unsolicited emails, give 0Spam a whirl. The site is a bit plain, but the service is free and working. I can’t tell you whether there are hidden drawbacks or not. Theoretically speaking, there is a chance someone else’s filter will mark the 0Spam validation mails as spam. I’m not aware of such a case, but you’ll never know. Also, some might argue that this type of service (whitelisters) are “against” the “open character” of email, i.e. the idea behind the medium - everyone can be reached by everyone else. I say the medium went downhill once email marketing took off. Personally, I’m rather talking to others using Jabber/ICQ/AIM than email; it’s a more fluid conversation. YMMV.

Well, that’s it. From the “spam fuckers made our live worse” front, this is ye olde Gossip.

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Carlo Zottmann @czottmann