The problem with Apple Mail’s junk filtering

If your email provider changes how it marks messages as spam, they have to provide controls, too.

macos catalina mail icon
Apple

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Spam remains a problem decades after its unfortunate debut on the internet. Spam, loosely defined, is any message you don’t want to receive of a commercial or misleading nature. Millions of person-hours have been spent to try to identify automatically and correctly unsolicited commercial email (UCE), phishing email, and other malicious or offensive messages. No one has fully succeeded.

Apple’s iCloud mail hosting and Mail apps for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS try to provide an interconnected set of tools to block or mark spam. Apple employs many techniques to identify and block messages that we never see. A ne’er-do-well sending a billion identical emails to iCloud users will likely see all billion blocked.

As a Mail user on any Apple operating system—including via icloud.com—you are likely aware that you can mark items as junk or non-junk (“ham” in the ham/spam pairing) to move messages between those mailboxes. Marking messages in either direction adds training information that should decrease false positives (messages that are incorrectly marked as ham or spam) and false negatives (spam that’s missed).

In Mail for macOS, you can select a message or messages in any folder except Junk and choose Message > Move to Junk or click the junk icon, a little bin with an “x” in it. In the Junk folder, you can select one or more emails and choose Messages > Move to Inbox or click the toolbar icon that looks in this context like a little bin with an upward-pointing arrow in it.

ios13 mail move to junk IDG

Move to Junk in iOS 13’s Maill app.

In iOS and iPadOS, you tap the leftward-pointing arrow beneath a message located anywhere but in the Junk mailbox and swipe up to tap Move to Junk to tag and move it. In the Junk mailbox, tap the arrow icon and swipe up to tap Mark as Not Junk.

But all the movement and marking happens only within Apple’s mail system. If you use the Mail app for email managed by any other ISP or other company, the ham/spam marking typically doesn’t improve results: moving items between folders doesn’t signal a change in state. This is a problem if you consistently have bad matching. One reader noted receiving a message from Comcast stating comcast.net mail might be inaccurately filtering messages as spam coming from businesses and schools because of the sudden increased volumes during the pandemic. Comcast explained changes it’s making to improve on this.

My Mac 911 correspondent said, however, they couldn’t find any way at Comcast to fix bad spam tagging. I suggest checking with Comcast or any ISP to find their webmail interface. ISPs almost always offer one, and provide tools for viewing and managing junk there, sometimes including handling quarantined messages that aren’t even put into your junk folder. You may also be able to adjust settings.

I’ve used Fastmail for many years, and they expose some controls for the spam-filtering software they use. This has let me tweak the “score” at which I want something marked as spam and at which I want a message deleted without ever reading. While it’s not perfect, only a few percent of spam get through and only a few messages a day at most are dropped into junk instead of my inbox.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Bill.

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