Service, Tool Take Meat Out of Spam

MessageLabs, Sunbelt build barriers against unsolicited bulk e-mail.

A new service and software from MessageLabs Ltd. and Sunbelt Software Inc., respectively, look to stem the rising tide of unsolicited bulk e-mail. (See amount of spam received per user in the United States.)

MessageLabs is taking the tricks it learned scanning e-mail for viruses and putting it to use scanning e-mail for the unwanted mass mailings called spam. This week, the Minneapolis company will introduce SkyScan AS (Anti-Spam), a service that routes corporate e-mail through four scanners that tag and segregate suspected spam messages before forwarding them to the addressed recipients.

Separately, Sunbelt is readying upgrades to its IHateSpam client-based spam filtering software, which shipped earlier this month, that will add more network administrator controls.

MessageLabs service goes beyond typical filters, which simply compare the senders return address with a "black list" of spammers. SkyScan AS also uses the heuristic scanner from the companys anti-virus software and applies rules to every incoming e-mail to see if it has one or more of the 550 characteristics associated with spam.

Those characteristics might include such things as malformed headers, the word "adult" followed by a URL or white space following a # sign in the subject line, officials said. Before an e-mail is tagged as spam, it has to have several of the characteristics. SkyScan AS also learns from experience and has a self-tuning component, MessageLabs officials said.

When messages are diverted through the companys 22 filtering sites, delivery is delayed about 1.2 seconds, the officials said.

Steve Paskach, vice president of IT at Quadion Corp., sees spam as an increasing time waster for Quadion employees. After receiving complaints about pornographic spam, Paskach also sees it as a possible legal liability.

"Its a growing problem," said Paskach, in Minneapolis. "The amount we are getting is 70 to 100 a day per person for some people. Thats a problem from a lost-productivity perspective."

Quadion is beta testing MessageLabs SkyScan AS. Paskach is willing to let the system flag a couple of e-mail messages that arent spam if it rids him of the real thing.

"Even if we stop one or two appropriate e-mails, then that is going to have to be the price to pay," Paskach said.

Sunbelt, of Clearwater, Fla., takes a different approach. Its IHateSpam software acts as an add-on to individual Microsoft Corp. Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail clients.

Sunbelt last week added a feature designed to increase the softwares accuracy. Users can hit the Is Spam button to forward instances of unsolicited bulk e-mail to Sunbelts Learning Network Server, where the e-mail is analyzed to see if new filtering rules need to be added to the software. Whenever the program is booted up, it sends a query over the Internet to Sunbelt to see if new filter rules are available.

Next quarter, Sunbelt will add a console that will let enterprise managers send rules to instances of IHateSpam running on employees desktops, officials said.