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Are You a Spammer? Your Email Recipients Hold the Key

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July 27, 2010

Are You a Spammer? Your Email Recipients Hold the Key

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director

What would we do without email? It’s not an unreasonable question, considering the connectivity available to us that allows us to maintain communications with colleagues, family, and friends wherever we are. Anywhere, that is, other than my flight from San Francisco to New York on American Airlines.

So, while the lack of connectivity did give me time to reflect on the 101 clients our team met with in three days, it did little to help me get caught up on email. Of course, in addition to the simple fact that I tend to get a tremendous volume of email, part of the problem is that much of the time we spend reading and responding to emails is consumed by identifying and deleting annoying spam from our inboxes, because our spam filters are not 100% effective – they either let through far too much spam, or they trap too many legitimate emails. Either way, we have to sort through the spam to get to our work.

According to Steve Kirsh, founder and CEO of Abaca, with whom I spoke in San Jose, the problem lies in the fact that most spam filters look at the sender’s reputation, including blacklists, along with the characteristics of the email contents to determine the likelihood of spam.

His company, on the other hand, considers the receiver’s reputation, characterizing the “spaminess” of each email recipient, based on the principle that spammers tend to use the same set of addresses over and over again – because that is what they have available to them and they, of course, don’t parse their lists.

The idea, he says, is that your email reputation is only as good as the people to whom you send. So, they rely on historical data analysis to statistically determine which receivers are more likely to receive spam. Spammers, for instance, are more likely to send to lists bought off the Internet, as opposed to legitimate vendors who have collected leads or lists from trade shows. By identifying those recipients, Abaca is able to identify spam with a high degree of efficiency.

“Anything that is unwanted, we get rid of automatically,” Kirsch told TMC CEO Rich Tehrani (News - Alert) in an interview. “A lot of times, we do it better than you could possibly even do it yourself.” (See the full interview below.)

He compares it to gambling habits: The more times you bet, the more money you are likely to lose. In their case, the more a spammer sends, the easier it is for Abaca to determine his status as a spammer.

The system works because of the very nature of spammers – they work on the fundamental principle of trying to get their emails to as many recipients as possible. The alternative, limiting the number of recipients, defeats the purpose. On the other hand, legitimate senders who parse their lists based on various criteria, tend to be safe.

Kirsch says his system, at worst, allows one or two spam messages to get through per one million sent. And on the off chance it falsely identifies a legitimate message as spam, the quarantine system uses a scoring system to identify the emails most likely to be false positives, and sends a report at the end of each day. This means users have to check only a few emails, instead of sorting through hundreds or thousands of spam messages to find one false positive.

According to Kirsch, Yahoo was so impressed by the solution’s efficiency, it dumped its own in-house-developed product in favor or Abaca.

Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Editorial Director of TMC, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to 2,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erik Linask

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