Yahoo adds e-mail features to flush out spam

Painfully aware that most of its users would rather clean toilets than delete spam from their inboxes, Yahoo continues to beef up its tools for fighting unsolicited e-mail.

In August, an internal Yahoo survey among its e-mail service users found that, given a choice between cleaning toilets and weeding out spam, 77 percent of respondents would choose the former. To continue helping its fed-up users, the provider of Internet content and services is adding on Tuesday five new weapons to its anti-spam arsenal, including the scanning of every attachment arriving or leaving a user's inbox to check for viruses.

While the other four enhancements are pretty standard, this decision to scan all incoming and outgoing attachments stands out as particularly interesting because so many viruses are spread that way, said Jim Nail, a Forrester Research senior analyst. "The biggest addition here is the scanning of attachments for viruses. This is something consumers will get a ton of value out of," Nail said.

This new service, available to all Yahoo e-mail users, scans all attachments for viruses, blocking infected attachments from being downloaded, sent or forwarded. Users who subscribe to the Yahoo Mail Plus service, which starts at US$29.99 per year, get the additional option of scrubbing the attachment to remove the virus.

Previously, Yahoo left it up to its mail users to decide whether they wanted their attachments scanned, said Miles Libbey, Yahoo's anti-spam product manager. Users would bypass scanning attachments to, for example, accelerate mail downloading, since scanning slows down that process, he said. However, given the serious consequences of recent virus attacks, the company decided to scan all attachments across the board, he said.

The four other anti-spam enhancements are:

-- AddressGuard, a feature which gives Yahoo Mail Plus users disposable e-mail aliases they can use instead of their real e-mail address. For example, a user might want to use an alias when conducting an online transaction or subscribing to an online group. If the alias then falls into a spammer's hands, the user can simply ditch this disposable address. A user can have up to 500 e-mail aliases in use simultaneously. E-mail sent to these addresses arrives in the user's inbox. This isn't available to users of Yahoo's free e-mail service.

-- SpamGuard Plus, an enhancement to Yahoo's proprietary SpamGuard spam filter. SpamGuard Plus lets users customize the general SpamGuard filter based on their usage and preferences. This isn't available to users of Yahoo's free e-mail service, only to Yahoo Mail Plus users.

-- Message Views, which lets users sort e-mail sent by people listed in their personal address book and by unknown senders. This could help a user prioritize which messages he reads and replies to first, the logic being he would want to deal first with e-mail from senders he knows. This is available to all users of Yahoo's e-mail service.

-- Anti-Spam resource center, a section of Yahoo's Web site network with information, tips and best practices on dealing with spam. Yahoo decided to invest in this resource center because it has found out through surveys that many users still ignore the basics of how to protect themselves from spam, such as not replying to unsolicited e-mail messages, Libbey said. All Yahoo mail users have access to this resource center.

All enhancements are available as of Tuesday, with the exception of Message Views, which will be rolled out in phases between next week and November, Libbey said.

While Yahoo is doing a good job of protecting its users from unsolicited e-mail messages, the spam problem will continue, as spammers find new ways of delivering their messages, Forrester's Nail said. Solving the spam problem will require making it more difficult to spoof e-mail addresses, something being addressed in an initiative called Project Lumos, he said. That initiative, however, is still in its early stages, he said.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service

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