spam-fighting system

How I manage spam on my mobile devices

Spam. Nobody likes it. Everybody hates it. Yet it continues to exist, filling inboxes with unwanted offers for generic drugs, overseas lotteries, health insurance, and who knows what else. The problem can be especially bad if you’ve got a really old email address, and that email address has been listed on various websites over the years—spammers love to harvest emails from websites, making your old, established, and public addresses subject to an amazing bombardment of spam.

Such is the situation I find myself in with my personal email address: I’ve had this particular email address since October of 2000. After so many years of public use, it gets a ton of spam—on a bad day in excess of 300 messages, but more typically (and consistently) in the range of 50 to 150.

When working on one machine at home, this doesn’t bother me too much, because my mail host has tools that accurately identify spam, and Mail’s rules automatically move that spam out of my inbox. So even though there’s a lot of spam, it’s not cluttering up my inbox.

The spam problem

When away from my home Mac, however, it’s a different situation. All those spam messages have to be delivered to my local device, even though 99.5% of them are garbage. When on a supposedly “high-speed” connection at some hotels, that could mean a really long wait (followed by a lot of manual mail management) before I can get to my important messages. I knew there had to be a better way.

The obvious solution, offered by many hosts, is to filter the spam on the server side into a special folder, so it never gets delivered at all. A Web-based tool is then used to review these flagged messages, and mark those that aren’t spam; those are then delivered to your regular mailbox.

While this is appealing from a simplicity standpoint, with the volume of spam I receive, using a Web-based tool to page through 50 or 100 messages at a time is a real chore. In addition, browsers do not make great replacements for dedicated apps; I much prefer to manage my mail on my Mac, where I can use multiple windows, standard keyboard shortcuts, and other OS X tools to simplify the process.

The solution

First, a warning: the solution isn’t free; it costs me $120 a year. There may be free alternatives that do the same thing, but in my searching, I didn’t find any of them. If email isn’t a key element of your work/personal life, you probably won’t find my solution cost-effective. But for me, being able to keep my forever-used email address and efficiently handle email while away from my Mac makes it well worth the annual cost.

I now handle spam using a combination of two email accounts, based at email hosting company Rackspace. First, I have my old always-public address—let’s just say that’s rob@example.com, and it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been, other than now being hosted at Rackspace. (I was able to move my mail to Rackspace because I use my own domain for email; if your email address ends on gmail.com or icloud.com, you won’t be able to do this solution.)

I also have a second account at Rackspace, spamtrap@example.com, which is now playing spam-catcher for all my of junk (and sometimes my incorrectly-classified legitimate) email. How does it work? Rackspace offers a number of options for spam filtering, including the fairly-typical Add a Marker to the Subject, Move to Spam Folder, and Delete Immediately. None of those, though, met my needs.

But Rackspace also offers a fourth option I hadn’t seen elsewhere: Deliver to another email address. All you evil-thinkers out there, relax: the other email address must be on your own domain, so you can’t just merrily forward your spam off to your worst enemy. I enabled this option, and told it to use the spamtrap@example.com address.

config

All spam for the primary account is automatically forwarded to the second account.

After configuring the main account to send all spam to the spamtrap account, I just had to configure my devices. On my main Mac, I created a new account in Mail, pointed it at the spamtrap@example.com account, and made it active. So now, when working at my main Mac, I get spam, but it comes into its own mailbox, and can be dealt with when I’m ready.

I also created this same account on the other Macs and iOS devices I regularly use, but did not activate it. Because Rackspace is forwarding the spam to the spamtrap account, I won’t see any of those messages when away from my main Mac. But if I do want (or need) to check what’s been trapped, I can do so by either enabling the account (which I can do if I’ve got a fast connection), or by using a webmail interface to the account (which I do when I have a slower connection). Using either method, though, my main inbox is no longer flooded with spam when I’m away from my main Mac.

The final word

I know there are many ways to handle spam, and many don’t involve spending money. But for me, the ability to travel without getting inundated with spam, and yet be in full control over how and when spam messages are handled, makes the solution worth the annual cost to my wallet. If you’ve never considered using your own domain for email, maybe this article will convince you to give it a try—it’s not expensive, and you can keep the same email address forever. But that’s a subject for another article.

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