Spam mail, a nuisance that floods e-mail inboxes every day, continues to pose challenges for the business community on a worldwide level.

The constant torrent of unwanted electronic mail sent by spammers makes life arduous for information technology (IT) departments to keep pace with. Additionally, it’s contributing to other major business setbacks such as decreased worker productivity and bandwidth losses.

With billions of unsolicited bulk messages proposing get-rich schemes, pharmaceuticals, technology offers and body improvement products, Americans both in the workplace and at home are spending more than 23 million hours a week deleting spam messages from their inboxes — an estimated loss of $21.6 billion a year, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Maryland.

The bad news is that spammers will not surrender any time soon, and the number of junk mail messages will continue to rise to unprecedented heights — with the intention of piercing defenses at companies of all sizes.

The business community, however, isn’t backing down without a fight as it increasingly recognizes the importance of working with software companies to suppress spam from e-mail servers.

Filtering Out The Junk
Steve Weber, information services manager for Coastwide Laboratories, says the Wilsonville, Ore.-based company has had its hands tied in filtering out spam messages for the last five years.

At first, the company found that the filter it was using was rather productive in guarding associates’ inboxes from unwanted e-mail, but was failing to correctly differentiate customer inquiries from junk mail.

Weber says the filter was sifting out a high number of false positive e-mail — mail that was legit, but classified as spam by the filter.

“It got to the point where one of our IT associates had to personally look through all the filtered e-mail to identify the false positives and forward them on,” Weber explains. “That took about an hour of his time each day and certainly was not looked upon as a stimulating part of his job.”

Weber says Coastwide was using a filter that worked off a combination of “black lists” and “statistical methodologies.” If the message contained known characteristics of spam — such as being addressed to more than 10 people and containing a hyperlink — then the message was “scored” on a scale established by Coastwide. If the score exceeded a certain level, then the message was classified as spam and not forwarded to the intended recipient, Weber notes.

Nearly 90 percent of all incoming messages sent to the company were classified as spam, and Weber says it was too overwhelming to handle. Coastwide then decided to switch its spam software.

For the last six months Coastwide has been outsourcing its e-mail to, a Web-based spam filtering service, which Weber says has helped prevent the influx of spam messages from associates’ inboxes. Weber says all e-mail goes to OnlyMyEmail first, where the spam is filtered, and at the end of the day each Coastwide associate receives a “spam report” listing the messages that were collected from their respective e-mail addresses.

“The associate then looks through the report and if he identifies a legitimate e-mail that has been filtered, he has the option of resending it to himself and putting the person who sent it on a white list,” Weber explains. “That allows the sender to send future e-mails to the associate without the spam filter stopping his messages.”

Kathie VanderPloeg, CEO, Ship-Pac Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich., says her company also recently decided to outsource its incoming e-mail because of the increasing amount of spam messages trickling in to associates’ inboxes.

VanderPloeg explains that by outsourcing the company’s incoming e-mail to Postini Inc., the filtering software first “washes” the unwanted e-mails out before being sent to Ship-Pac’s e-mail server.

VanderPloeg says an advantage with the Postini software is that it allows each employee to maintain their own white list. She says this helps prevent possible customer inquiries from being filtered as spam.

“Users have the ability to check spam e-mails on a regular basis, delete them, and allow e-mails that may have been caught in the filter to be delivered to their inbox,” she explains.

Software Backfire
Giving employees the option of filtering spam may do more harm than good, says Elaine Norton, information technology operations manager, Eastern Bag & Paper Group, Milford, Conn.

Norton says Eastern Bag & Paper has seen its share of spam mail, so much, in fact, that the company has had to switch its spam filtering software three times to finally get to the level they deemed appropriate.

The most recent switch — two years ago — was because that software required too much effort from associates, who had to “train” the software which messages were spam.

When the software was installed, Eastern Bag & Paper also installed an add-in link to Microsoft Outlook inboxes, so when employees received a spam message, they were supposed to click on a link that flagged it as spam.

Norton says some Eastern Bag & Paper associates received 75 to 100 spam messages a day with the old software versus the two or three messages a week they currently receive since switching to MessageLabs Group software.

Bob Cohen, executive vice president, Allston Supply Co., Inc., Springfield, Mass., says Allston has combated spam to the point where it’s happy if an associate receives two to four e-mails a day that sneak through the spam filter.

Cohen says if companies place restrictions that are too tight on their spam filter, it could lead to the loss of real messages.

“If you tighten your filter too much, you’ll end up losing some real messages,” Cohen says. “You want to have an optimum place where a couple of spam messages might still sneak through. Then you’re pretty sure you’re getting everything you want.”

Customers Like It
With a negative, there’s usually a positive — in the case of distributors using e-mail for business purposes, the benefits typically outweigh the drawbacks.

Many jan/san distributors run their businesses completely through e-mail as invoices and order entry are increasingly becoming digitized and Web-based.

“We find e-mail to be very efficient for handling communications that need to be timely, such as orders and product availability,” says VanderPloeg. “Many customers prefer to communicate by e-mail.”

Most distributors say customers prefer using e-mail rather than conversing by telephone because e-mail communication is documented.

“Customers like it, and we like it,” says Cohen. “What we find is our customers — just like us — like to have a paper trail. With e-mail you can communicate very clearly exactly what you want to say, and back comes a response to your concise and precise communication with a concise and precise response.”

Cohen says using e-mail also saves valuable time lost from playing phone tag and often prevents miscommunication with vendors and customers.

“It saves time because you’re not chasing people,” he says. “You can type something that communicates what you want to say very coherently in a way that a telephone conversation doesn’t.”

VanderPloeg agrees that e-mail can be effective when used properly, however, she cautions her employees on relying on it all the time.

“E-mail can be difficult to interpret,” she explains. “If you would not make a statement to a fellow employee or customer face to face, you should not put the statement in an e-mail.”

Patsy O’Grady, chief information officer, Strauss Paper Co., Inc., Port Chester, N.Y., says e-mail can make a worker nonproductive if the user is paying too much attention to his or her inbox.

“You get so many interruptions during the day that you become nonproductive and you’re not staying focused on tasks that require your attention,” she notes. “People can develop good habits by checking their e-mail several times during the day. And if someone really needs you in an emergency, they can always call you on the telephone.”

Outgoing Mail
The challenge for distributors who send monthly newsletters or product releases through e-mail is to make sure their messages aren’t getting trapped as spam in customers’ filters. O’Grady says an easy way to getting past filters is making sure the subject line contains words that are recognizable.

“If you put a lot of special characters in [the subject line] or anything that doesn’t look like real words, it will get filtered.” O’Grady notes. “You just have to be careful and stick to regular words and numbers and straightforward English.”


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Visitors can access SM articles and trends affecting distributors, manufacturers and end users.