WORLDBEAT - Me, myself and spam

I'm guilty. Stick a fork in me because I'm cooked. At least that's what my Hotmail e-mail account would have me believe.

I sent myself an e-mail the other day by entering my personal address in both the "to" and "from" fields of the message. To my disbelief, when I received the message seconds later, it appeared in my Junk Mail folder. If you didn't know, the Junk Mail folder is the place where unwanted e-mail is supposed to end up with Microsoft's Corp.'s free e-mail service.

Now maybe Hotmail knows something I don't. Maybe the content of my mail does lack the certain joie de vivre that people expect when they look to their inbox. But to call my message "junk" seemed a bit judgmental, that's all.

More unbelievable is that my "legitimate" inbox remains littered with messages about home mortgage offers, quick diets and cheap deals on printer cartridges. Just this week a dental insurance company was soliciting a new teeth whitening treatment; guaranteed success, it said. Maybe I ought to reassess my standards on junk.

Microsoft has acknowledged that misdirected mail could be a problem for its 110 million or so Hotmail subscribers. It warns users on the mail Web site to "check your Junk Mail folder regularly to make sure wanted e-mail has not been moved there." As it turns out, if you have your Junk Mail filter set at Enhanced and Exclusive levels (as opposed to the more lenient Default setting) "wanted messages are occasionally identified as junk mail," a disclaimer reads.

Help is on the way, the folks in Redmond, Washington, tell me. In September, Microsoft forged a deal with Brightmail Inc. to use its spam-filter technology to help keep unwanted e-mail out of users' inboxes. Similar services are used by Internet service providers such as Yahoo Inc., EarthLink Inc. and America Online Inc.

Microsoft also says that its new Web browsing software MSN 8 will solve the spam problem better than any of its previous products. A new Web-based mail application that comes with MSN 8, and resembles Microsoft's Outlook Express software, promises advanced antispam controls for users. If you're a die-hard antispammer, for example, you can chose to only receive mail from those on your contact list.

The only problem with MSN 8 is that I'll have to spend US$9.95 a month for a subscription to the service. I guess it pays to be spam free. Or rather, I pay to be spam free.

At least the industry admits that spam is a problem. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, whose job is to protect citizens from unwanted things, like credit card solicitors who call during dinner, and spam, is trying its best to help out. The organization created a new cartoon icon to combat unwanted mail. Much like Smokey the Bear, a character who is known to promote fire prevention, Dewie the e-Turtle uses his hard shell to drum spam enforcement into our hard heads. I feel safer every day.

The bottom line is that spam is a problem, even if that problem is as small as me being labeled a junk mail sender. In the workplace, for example, research company Gartner Inc. estimates that roughly 25 percent to 35 percent of a company's total mail volume consists of spam.

Compared to my personal e-mail, I'd say they're getting off easy.

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Matt Berger

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