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New e-mail filters at local colleges limit spam

Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

In late August, U.S. law enforcement began a crackdown on unwanted spam e-mail and other questionable online activities with about 100 arrests nationwide. The arrests targeted people who spread viruses, sent large amounts of unsolicited mail and stole other users’ personal information.

Unsolicited commercial messages make up about 65 percent of all e-mail, according to computer security company Symantec Corp. Some spam senders use the bulk messages to spread viruses and trick people into giving credit card numbers and other personal information — a technique called “phishing.”

Phishers gain this information by sending e-mails encouraging people to visit fake Web sites that appear to be for legitimate banks or corporations.

Columbia College and MU have recently taken steps to address a growing problem with spam messages and phishing.

Columbia College enabled a program called “I Hate Spam” about two months ago, said Rick Powell, the college’s director of technology services. The program has blocked more than 145,000 spam messages so far.

“I Hate Spam” costs the college a one-time fee of $12.50 per user. The program lets network users customize the filters that monitor which messages they receive. It delivers all spam messages to quarantine folders. Users can examine these folders and decide if they want certain messages or senders to remain in them.

“It’s important to allow users to tailor filters how they want to,” Powell said. “We want to give as much power to our users as possible.”

Spam e-mails have frustrated Dan Vollrath, a freshman at Columbia College, in the past. “I used to get a lot on Hotmail,” Vollrath said. “I used to get an ungodly amount.”

He has noticed that he receives less spam since implementation of the school’s new system.

“It’s one of the most secure e-mails I’ve ever used,” he said. “Not much gets through the filters.”

MU is working to block spam from entering its e-mail pipeline as well, a focus that began in the summer of 2003. Randy Wiemer, associate director of information technology for the University of Missouri system, said the current Microsoft Outlook system blocks about half the messages it receives.

A small portion of these blocked e-mails are on a list managed by the university’s Information and Access Technology Services. IATS adds source addresses to this list when it notices unusual traffic patterns. If senders believe they were added to the list mistakenly, they may ask to be removed from it.

MU also recently enabled a new spam filter by Microsoft, called the Intelligent Message Filter, for those people whose e-mail address ends in “umsystem.edu.” The feature is a new function of the Microsoft package used by the UM system and MU and does not cost more. IATS plans to finish installing the program for the rest of the network by the end of September.

Wiemer noted the recent rise in programs was devised to block unwanted e-mails.

“Over the past year, there has been a huge growth in the number of companies selling anti-spam products,” he said.

With companies constantly being established or closing, however, it is difficult to determine an exact number in service, said Peter Cassidy of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, an association of companies devoted to eliminating identity theft and fraud from spam and phishing.

Jack Reaves, director of campus computing and telecommunications at Stephens College, said the school does not subscribe to an anti-spam service. Most users of the Stephens network, he said, forward their e-mail to other providers, such as America Online or Hotmail, which have security filters.

Reaves has received no complaints about spam from students, but he has heard reports from faculty.

“Occasionally, faculty or staff will report spam messages to us, which we can block reactively through our software, or users can create their own client filters,” he said.

Phishing attacks have increased significantly in past months. The Anti-Phishing Working Group reported 1,422 phishing incidents in June, compared to 176 in January. Cassidy noted the online availability of phishing programs as a reason for the increase.

“What’s happened is a lot of people are using programs they’ve downloaded,” he explained. “Someone makes a script or kit and puts it online, and six months later, everyone’s using it.”

Beth Chancellor, director of telecommunications at MU, said IATS makes a point of addressing any phishing activity it encounters by sending an alert to the college community. She noted that IATS only sends a warning when a phishing message gets through the network’s filters.

“I can only remember, in the last six to nine months, having to send an alert once,” Chancellor said.

Powell added that although spam has been an issue for Columbia College’s system, he believes that users have not experienced problems with phishing.

“I don’t worry about it,” Vollrath said. “I’m smart enough to figure it out.”

In contrast, the issue does concern Lisa Climer, another freshman at the college.

“It’s a problem,” she said. “It’s scary that anyone could get that information from you, once it’s on the Internet.”

Internet users can help protect themselves from phishing by questioning e-mails that request information, keeping passwords and personal numbers private, and not releasing information over e-mail unless they contacted the company first.


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