Given the scale of this menace, it is not surprising that a host of top security vendors have muscled into the market with filtering products that claim to be able to stem this inexorable tide of financial propositions from former Nigerian politicians or offers for cheap Viagra.
Symantec was by no means the first entrant into this fast-growing market for anti-spam products, but the company has come out fighting with its latest Norton AntiSpam 2004 offering, which is available as part of the Norton Internet Security suite or as a standalone utility.
Opening up the box, the AntiSpam program CD is accompanied by a clearly organized 80-page booklet which provides step-by-step installation instructions and, much more importantly, details of how the product can be "trained" over time to differentiate spam from legitimate emails.
Setup is very straightforward. There is an anti-piracy system which means users must enter a unique activation code (supplied with the disk) after which the program connects automatically with an online Symantec server to activate the software. Failure to complete this activation stage will result in the program locking up after 15 days.
Installation zipped away rapidly on our main testing PC – with a 2800+ Athlon processor and 512 MB of memory – but it was a different story when we loaded the software onto our "average" corporate desktop PC – a Pentium III with 128 MB of RAM. Waiting for the program to configure on it took what seemed like ages, but once set up, there was no discernable impact on email client performance.
AntiSpam works with any POP3 email program, but is specifically designed to integrate with the latest versions of Microsoft Outlook 2000/XP/2003, Microsoft Outlook Express 5.5 or later and Eudora 5 or later. Unfortunately, however, it does not support IMAP mail systems, POP3 programs that use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), or email accounts that can only be accessed over the web.
For supported clients, however, AntiSpam sets itself up with minimum fuss by automatically creating a new filter and a quarantine folder where it deposits emails that it has deemed to be spam. It also adds spam-fighting buttons to the supported client's existing toolbars.
In the case of our test system, loaded with the corporate standard Outlook 2000, AntiSpam identified the default email client and loaded itself seamlessly without need for any further configuration.
The Installation wizard asked whether we wanted to import our Outlook contacts to a trusted whitelist of email addresses which it will not block, and then offers the change of checking through the selection and removing specific email addresses before the list is completed. It then goes on to ask if we want Symantec's Live Update utility to automatically check for new spam signatures and add them to its database.
Once installed, the program simply adds three buttons to the main Outlook menu – one to open up the AntiSpam client, and the others to identify spam and legitimate emails.
When mail is downloaded after AntiSpam has been loaded, the program sorts messages inside the email client and isolates those which contain keywords that the program's database has stored as junk mail signatures in a quarantine folder.
The level of aggressiveness of this filtering is easily changed via the software's configuration panel, but we found the default setting of "medium" to offer good protection without flagging up too many false positives which would lead to potentially valuable emails being consigned to the spam bin.
"Teaching" the software is very intuitive. If a spam message has been missed by AntiSpam, all the user needs to do is to select the email in question and click the "This is spam" button, which despatches the offending mail to the quarantine folder and adds its sender to the blocked blacklist.
Should the program block a legitimate mail, the process is reversed, with the user selecting the false positive and clicking on the "This is not spam" button.
To refine its spam-busting capabilities even further, the software also automatically checks sent email to learn what type of emails should be added to the spam blacklist.
With no fine tuning at all to the default configuration, Norton AntiSpam managed to filter just around 80 percent of the spam that we received.
However, the effectiveness of the software's "learning" ability was quickly apparent. After running Norton AntiSpam for a little more than a week, its detection rate improved to around 90 percent, with very few false positive results.
The product is relatively good value for money, with a single user version carrying a recommended price of $39.95, while a five-user, small businesses network version is $179.95. These prices only supply 12 months of online updates.
Symantec does provide email technical support and a telephone-based service, but not on a toll-free number.