Dealing with junk mail

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for wonderful means of communication—free voice and video calls, no-cost text messaging, and the ability to share your life with thousands of strangers you can call friends. On the other—like in the real world plagued by department store flyers jammed into mailboxes, robocalls, and acolytes moving from door to door to spread The Word—it provides a means for others to junk up your inbox with unwanted missives. In this lesson we’ll look at Mail’s junk mail protections, as well as at other ways you can keep from being overwhelmed with Internet offal.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam …

You’ve likely heard the term spam used to refer to junk email. This is a reference to a sketch from the BBC’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus where the word spam is chanted over and over. It was specifically applied to unwanted communications thanks to miscreants of the era who filed posts on electronic bulletin boards that repeated the word often enough to scroll other users’ messages off the screen.

Today we use the term generically. While most often invoked to describe unsolicited (and unwanted) email, it’s not unusual to hear it applied to likewise junky text and voice messages, Internet forum and message-thread advertising, and Twitter messages containing links to unscrupulous websites. Because some people are confused by the term, companies such as Apple and Microsoft refer to it instead as junk mail.

About Mail’s Junk Mail feature

When taking you on a tour of Mail’s interface I mentioned the toolbar’s Mark As Junk Mail button (Command-Shift-J). This button hints that you can take action against the spam messages you receive. But that action goes beyond simply selecting a message and spanking it with a junk button. When marking a message as spam, you’re teaching Mail what is and isn’t a viable message.

Built into Mail is a technology that seeks out obvious spam. This can include, for example, messages from Nigerian royalty who believe you’re the kind of person who can be trusted with $25 million dollars, offers for cheap pharmaceuticals, and proposals of a more salacious variety. These are well-known scams designed to drain your bank account or steal your identity—so well known, that Mail is aware of them and will automatically mark them as spam when they arrive in your inbox.

But spammers are a crafty lot who spend a fair amount of time designing ways to skirt junk mail protections. That's why you must continually teach Mail about new spam strains. And that’s the purpose of the Mark As Junk Mail button. When Mail gets it wrong and lets one of these messages through, you must mark it as junk so that the application doesn’t get it wrong the next time. Likewise, if you receive good messages that Mail has determined to be junk—you’re a urologist, for example, who deals with drugs like Viagra as part of your working day—you must tell Mail that they're good by selecting them and marking them as such. (When you select a message marked as junk, the Mark As Junk Mail button changes to Mark As Not Junk. Click this button to mark as good a message that Mail mistakenly calls junk.) Through training the feature becomes more accurate.

The Junk Mail preference

The Junk Mail feature is configurable—you can see how by choosing Mail > Preferences and selecting the Junk Mail tab. The following are its options.

Mail's Junk Mail preference.

Enable junk mail filtering: At the top of this preference, you see that you can turn it on or off with a single click. Why turn it off? If you’re using a third-party spam-filtering application (which I’ll discuss later), you don’t want Mail’s junk filtering to interfere with it.

When junk mail arrives: By default, messages deemed to be junk will be left in your inbox but marked in an orangy-brown color, making it easy to spy them in your message list. This is the default behavior, because Apple wants to make this stuff obvious so you can take a peek at it and then correct any mistakes Mail has made. (In other words, it’s a way of forcing you to train Mail.) Once you’ve become used to the idea of receiving and marking junk mail (and gaining a sense of how accurate Mail is at identifying it), enable the Move it to the Junk mailbox option. This creates a Junk mailbox in Mail’s Mailboxes pane. Any future identified junk mail you receive (and any messages you mark as junk) will be moved from your inbox to this folder.

Note that it pays to check the Junk folder from time to time. Mail’s junk mail detection is reasonably good, but it’s not perfect. You don’t want to miss an important message because you put too much faith in this feature’s powers.

There’s a third option under the ‘When junk mail arrives’ heading—Perform Custom Actions. In a previous lesson I showed you how to work with Mail’s rules. You can put that information to good use by selecting this option and clicking the Advanced button at the bottom of this window.

A sheet descends, and you see a list of pop-up menus that contain conditions—rules that a message must meet to be considered spam. If you find that the junk mail feature over- or under-identifies junk mail, mucking with these conditions may help. For example, you might add a condition that reads ‘From Contains X' where X is a domain that routinely sends you messages you don’t want to read—an online shopping emporium, for instance, that refuses to remove you from its mailing list. And, as with other rules, you can add or reconfigure the actions taken on messages determined to be spam. You can, for example, change that orangy-brown color to something a little more eye-pleasing, as well as flag junky messages so that they really stand out.

The following types of messages are exempt from junk-mail filtering: This section contains three options, all designed to keep Mail from falsely identifying good email. The first two—‘Sender of message is in my Contacts’ and ‘Sender of message is in my Previous Recipients’—assume that anyone you’ve chosen to communicate with is unlikely to be a spammer. The third, ‘Message is addressed using my full name’, exists because it’s rare that spam is addressed in this way. This could help the urologist who prescribes the drugs we discussed earlier.

Trust junk mail headers in messages: As email works its way through the Internet’s various servers, it can be identified as junk mail before it gets to you. This identifying information is planted in the message in areas that you can’t normally see. When this option is enabled (as it is by default), you’re telling Mail to trust that when a message has been marked as spam prior to you receiving it, it really is junk and should be treated as such.

Filter junk mail before applying rules: This option, which is off by default, gives junk mail filtering priority when your mail is filtered. As the name implies, the junk mail technology examines your incoming email first and deals with the results. Then your rules kick in. Because I have created some rules that help filter unwanted mail, I leave this option off.

Reset button: If you’ve failed to train Mail or done it so rarely that you get bizarre results, it may be time to start over and commit to doing it right the next time. You do this by clicking Reset at the bottom of the preference. This erases any training you’ve done and restores the junk mail feature to its default settings.

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