July 26, 2001 4:15 PM PDT

Hotmail: How much filtering is too much?

A new spam filter for Microsoft's Hotmail service is not only bouncing $198 Florida land deals and instant diplomas from in-boxes, it's also thwarting e-mail sent from subscribers to themselves.

One longtime Hotmail user discovered this to her chagrin when she plucked from her overloaded spam box a birthday reminder she'd forwarded to her own account through Hotmail's Calendar service--two days after her friend Lexi turned 31.

"It's not reasonable for me to look into my junk mail folder for reminders that I program Hotmail to send me," said Laura, a Boston-based attorney who has been a Hotmail subscriber since 1996. "I understand that some mail gets dumped inadvertently into my junk mail folder; but Hotmail's in a position to know that's not junk mail. It's their own service."

The delivery misfire is just the latest in a volley of criticism leveled at Hotmail's renovated service, which launched last week after technical troubles. At the time, several subscribers complained about the service's design changes and technical issues, including tiny font sizes and difficulty printing e-mail.

Microsoft acknowledged that a new spam filter included in the upgrade blocks e-mail sent from its Calendar reminder service, as well as messages sent from subscribers back to themselves.

"Forging headers, or an e-mail that looks like it comes from yourself, is popular with spammers; and our new service sends that kind of e-mail to your junk mail folder," said Sarah Lefko, MSN product manager. MSN's Calendar reminders fall into this category because they are sent from the receiver's address.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software company is working to fix the problem, Lefko said. For now, subscribers can work around the system by adding their own e-mail address to their address book, she said.

Two years ago, when Hotmail implemented a new spam filter, it also was met with criticism after consumers complained that the flow of spam to their in-boxes did not slow.

The latest spam filter for Hotmail, which has more than 100 million subscribers, lets members choose three different options for diverting junk mail. One option, the "low" setting, is similar to the previous version, while the "high" setting has more stringent methods of reducing spam, including routing any suspicious e-mail to a bulk folder. The "exclusive" lever will let people receive e-mail only from people listed in their address books.

Hotmail criticized over spam filter woes Anti-spammers say that for the most part such filtering services work well to avert junk mail, although in Hotmail's case they may work too well.

"There's obviously a glitch," said Steve Linford, who runs the London-based Spamhaus Project.

Linford said that Web-based spam filters typically snare up to 40 percent to 50 percent of unwanted messages. One pitfall of the filters, however, is that they can propagate junk mail simply by accepting the messages, giving spammers a sign to continue using that address. Spammers also quickly figure out how to outsmart techniques to block junk mail.

"As soon as spammers figure out how the filters work they upgrade their spamware with features to get around the filters," he said.

Although Laura suffered only mild embarrassment for missing her friend's birthday, the issue compounded her increasing frustration with the service. In January, all of her saved e-mail disappeared and she didn't have any recourse with Microsoft's customer service.

"Yahoo has a reminder service I'm going to use from now on, which is reliable, to my knowledge," she said. "The fact of the matter is you get what you pay for. They're both free, but at the end of the day, it's just up to you to pick the most reliable service."

 

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