Configuring Mail's Junk Mail settings

A reader who wishes to remain nameless is seeing more junk mail than she cares to. She writes:

I can’t get a handle on why my Mail junk filter doesn’t work so well. I continue to receive Viagra pitches and claims from foreign dignitaries that I’ve won millions of dollars. It occurred to me that maybe I don’t really know what I am doing. Can you outline the way to use Mail’s Junk Mail settings?

If you believe that you’ve been teaching Mail what is and isn’t junk and it’s not responding as it should, start by resetting the junk mail settings so you have a fresh start. (Don’t do this if it’s misidentifying the occasional good or bad message.) To reset theses settings, open Mail’s Preferences, click the Junk Mail item in the toolbar, and click the Reset button.

To begin anew, in this same Junk Mail window check the Enable Junk Mail Filtering option. As you’re just starting out, enable the Mark as Junk Mail, But Leave it in My Inbox option. When this option is on, any messages that Mail believes are junk will be marked in brown. I suggest leaving them in your Inbox for the time being so you can A) see if the junk mail filter is working at all and B) easily identify mail marked as junk. The filter works better when you teach it and having junk appear in your Inbox will remind you to train Mail.

Carefully scan your Inbox and verify that what Mail is calling junk, really is. If it isn’t, highlight the good messages and click the Not Junk button in Mail’s toolbar. Likewise, keep an eye out for messages that are junk but haven’t been marked as such. When you find one, highlight it and click the Junk button in Mail’s toolbar.

Over time, with your tutelage, Mail will go beyond its native powers to identify junk and better pinpoint messages that you believe are junk. When it hits far more often than it misses, you can return to the Junk Mail window within Mail's preferences and enable the Move it to the Junk Mailbox option. As its name suggests, this option tells Mail to automatically move mail it’s identified as junk to a Junk folder, which appears under the On My Mac heading in Mail’s Mailboxes pane.

Mail provides you with some broad options in the Junk Mail window for more easily sorting wheat from chaff. Under the The Following Types of Messages Are Exempt From Junk Mail Filtering heading you see Sender of Message is in my Address Book, Sender of Message is in my Previous Recipients, and Message is Addressed Using My Full Name. Unless you routinely correspond with spammers, check the first option. The second option is also worth checking, but before you do choose Window -> Previous Recipients and make sure the addresses you find there are all from “good” recipients. If you find questionable addresses, select them and click the Remove From List button. I have less confidence in the last option. I’ve received spam that is indeed addressed to my full name. You’re welcome to enable it and see if it’s effective. If not, switch it off.

Next down the list is Trust Junk Mail Headers Set by my Internet Service Provider. ISPs will run their own check on mail before it’s sent to you. When you enable this option you tell Mail that you want it to pay attention to your ISP’s judgment regarding the junkiness of the e-mail you receive from it. This helps Mail more accurately identify junk.

The last option, Filter Junk Mail Before Applying My Rules is worth enabling if you use Rules to filter your e-mail. If you leave it off, it’s possible that a rule you’ve created will grab a junky message because of some errant word in the message body or header entry. Switch it on and junk gets filtered first, then rules are applied to the remaining good messages.

Mail's Junk Mail settings.

Outside of the Junk Mail window there are other things you can do. First, never, ever click an unsubscribe link in a junk mail message. It’s a trap set by spammers to identify “active” e-mail addresses. When you click that unsubscribe link there’s an excellent chance that your address will be added to a list of good addresses and sold to other spammers and scammers.

Along these same lines, don’t use Mail’s Bounce feature. The idea is that you select a hunk of junk, choose Message -> Bounce, and a phony bounce message supposedly tells a spammer that the address they’ve sent their crud to is no good. If we were living in the halcyon days of 1996 this might be effective, but it isn’t in the 21st century. Spammers routinely forge return addresses. More likely than not, your bounce will go to some innocent schmoe who’s had their e-mail address hijacked by spammers. By bouncing a message you’re just adding to the problem of unwanted e-mail.

(So why does Apple continue to put this seemingly useless command in Mail? It’s one way to throw your creepy ex-girlfriend off the scent.)

You can also set up a free Gmail account and send mail from your POP account through it (a feature called Mail Fetcher). Gmail offers excellent spam filtering both with native Gmail accounts and those accounts you send through it. You’ll find the option for fetching mail from a different account in Gmail’s Accounts and Import setting (look for the Check Mail Using POP3 entry). If you use Gmail (or its filtering powers) you’ll have little need for Mail’s Junk Mail feature.

Finally, it you have a severe junk mail problem and Mail just isn’t up to dealing with it, do what I did and purchase a copy of C-Command Software’s best-$30-you’ll-ever-spend SpamSieve ( ). It’s the most effective spam-filtering tool I’ve ever used and one I refuse to compute without.

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