[ZAP!] Try This Near-Perfect Spam Filter

Category: Spam

According to researchers, it is estimated that about 54 percent of all email traffic is spam. But I rarely see any spam in my inbox. That's because Gmail blocks 99.9 percent of all spam, phishing and malware emails. Read on to learn how you can get near-perfect spam filtering, even if you don't use Gmail…

Try Blocking Spam With Gmail (it works for any inbox)

According to Statista, a global research firm that provides market and consumer data, the ratio of legit emails to spam is improving. In the beginning of 2012, spam accounted for almost 70 percent of all emails. Today, that number has decreased significantly, but not enough. One factor in that decline is machine learning, an application of artificial intelligence, which has been part of Gmail’s spam filter program since its inception.

Every time a user clicks the “Report Spam” or “Not Spam” button on a message, Gmail learns something that helps it filter spam better. But Google is also using technology to help Gmail learn on its own, without the user’s clicks.

The Gmail spam filter uses an artificial neural network (ANN) that can detect and block the “especially sneaky” spam that sometimes slips past users’ radar. What’s an “artificial neural network,” you ask? The oversimplified answer is, a lot of computers connected to each other in an attempt to simulate the interconnections of human brain cells. It’s expensive to build an artificial neural network; most are tiny, with 1 to 10 million connections.

Gmail Spam FIlter

Google has built an ANN with over one billion connections using the processors in its vast and far-flung empire of data centers. That sounds awesome, until you learn that the human brain contains several trillion connections! None the less, Google’s ANN is capable of rudimentary human-like self-learning. That means you don’t have to teach it what spam is.

In one experiment, Google’s ANN was fed millions of still images of cats culled from YouTube videos. The images were not labeled as “cats” and programmers did not tell the ANN what a “cat” is. The ANN figured it out for itself, learning to recognize cats in virtually any image. If it can do that, it can recognize spam with greater accuracy than most humans can. In 2019, Google announced that thanks to their machine learning framework known as TensorFlow, they are able to block an additional 100 million spam messages daily. Especially if they have anything to do cats, I presume.

Unidentified Frying Objects?

You don't have to do anything to use Gmail's spam filtering - it's automatic. But you can add your own filters to funnel messages into folders, forward to another address, and other actions. See my article Missing Emails? Tweak Your Spam Filter for help adding filters to Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com webmail.

For more spam fighting tips, see my articles Fight Spam With a Disposable Email Address, Can You Trace an Email? Maybe, Here's how… and Here's How to Report Spammers (and how NOT to)

But the ANN is still not perfect. Just as humans see UFOs in pictures of streetlights, Google’s ANN sometimes sees spam in legitimate messages and mistakenly consigns them to the spam folder. Google claims that only about 0.01 percent (1 in 10,000) of legitimate emails are falsely labeled as spam these days. As the ANN learns more about email, that figure should fall even further.

Take a look in your Gmail spam folder, and see how it's working. If you do find certain messages are being incorrectly flagged as spam, you can create a Gmail filter for them, with a "Never send to Spam" action, so they'll be delivered to your inbox.

On the flip side. occasionally, I do get a batch of spammy messages that recur over a number of days. Recently I was getting several emails daily emails about investing in bitcoin. It was clearly spam, but perhaps because of other tech-related stuff that I do read, Gmail thought otherwise. I created a filter to send them to the Trash, problem solved.

How does Gmail’s spam filter compare to other free Webmail services, such as Microsoft’s Outlook.com and Yahoo? I haven’t been able to find any independent, rigorous studies of this question. I’ll just note that Yahoo seems rather overzealous about spam filtering, and quite a few of my outgoing messages to Yahoo accounts end up wrongly labelled as spam, or just don't get delivered at all. If you have any relevant data on this, please do share.

Another spam-fighting technique that Gmail employs doesn’t really tackle spam, in my opinion. Gmail attempts to learn individual users’ reading preferences and filter out even legitimate mail that goes unread. The company gives the example of email newsletters. One user reads them assiduously while another just lets them pile up unread, or deletes them without reading. Why people don’t just unsubscribe from newsletters is one of life’s mysteries. Hopefully, Gmail can distinguish between legit opt-in email newsletters and the ones that just arrive without your consent.

Finally, Gmail is providing help for legitimate, large-volume email publishers whose communications are sometimes wrongly condemned as spam. The Gmail Postmaster Tools will help airlines, banks, credit card companies, and other well-known firms analyze the fate of their emails and improve their delivery and reading rates. That’s a good thing, because more and more large companies are encouraging customers to receive their monthly statements by email, rather than paper copies in the mail.

Even if you don't use or like Gmail, you can still use it to filter spam. Here's one technique that some people use to "pre-filter" their incoming emails. Instead of providing your actual email address when asked, give out a Gmail address that you've created. Configure that Gmail account to simply forward everything to your actual address. Gmail does spam-filtering BEFORE forwarding, so the messages that do get forwarded are virtually spam-free.

Gmail’s spam filter is so reliable and accurate that I hardly ever check my spam filter for false positives anymore. I get hundreds of emails daily, and I rarely find myself clicking on the “Report Spam” button. The spam filter just works.

Do you use Gmail? How is the spam filtering working for you? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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Most recent comments on "[ZAP!] Try This Near-Perfect Spam Filter"

Posted by:

20 Nov 2020

I have used gmail for over a decade. The spam filter used to be just about perfect, but recently I do get one or 2 spam emails a day. There are many more which go straight to my spam label / folder though and no non-spam emails in with the spam when I do look.
Anyone else getting more spam than they used to, and any idea of how to do anything about it. I always mark such emails as spam.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2020

I have no problem with spam with GMAIL which I have utilized for over a decade.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2020

I have multiple email accounts. I think Yahoo is good at filtering spam, but, as Bob said, sometimes a bit overzealous. I get so MANY AOL emails that it's harder to tell there, but I tend to think they're not as good at recognizing spam. Gmail is very good, with one exception. Some sites/companies may, on rare occasions, send me several different emails in one day. Gmail may let four through but send one to the spam folder. (I have no idea about the reason. They're all legitimate.)

Posted by:

Henyry Peck
20 Nov 2020

I have all my email go though Mozilla Thunderbird. It uses Spam Assassin to pick out spam and adds those emails that I find that got through the filter and adds them to the data base. I get good results and do not have to deal with Google tracking my every move.

Posted by:

Brian B
20 Nov 2020

I Have used Mozilla Thunderbird for over a decade with fairly good results at filtering spam. A couple of years ago, after a bad period of spam slipping through, I put in a filter to send ALL emails, with an address not in my address book, to a quarantine folder. I check the folder for any false positives periodically, but since adding this filter, my inbox is 100% clean. I use a similar system on my phone.

Posted by:

Ken H
20 Nov 2020

I have been using gmail ever since I first heard about it (you had to be invited.)

I don't remember the last time I got any spam.

Just went to spam folder and marked 3 of the first 100 emails not spam, but I wouldn't have read any of them anyway. There were several others requesting money for political campaigns that aren't strictly spam IMO, but I didn't report them as not spam because I don't want them in any case.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2020

Actually, I receive the same spam email over and over again, even after clicking the 'report spam' button. Doesn't seem to work very well for me.

Posted by:

21 Nov 2020

Yeah, its right on my gmailaccounts I hardly find Spam.
However, using yahoo for many years with several accounts it's the same. Spam folder is mostly empty.
On outlook I get some but not many.
I have only one email address where I am receiving plenty of spam since years. I guess it's because I used a music streaming service more than a decade ago. But over time being number of junk mails went down to around 10 to 20 daily.I am going to try forwarding emails from this account to another gmail address and take it from there.
I am doing this already with another email address and it works fine.
Bob thanks for this recommendation

Posted by:

James Mills
21 Nov 2020

I have used gmail for so long I can't recall when I started. I use filters a LOT, mostly to sort out my preferred emails to one of five folders: Primary, Social, Promotional, Updates or Forums. For example, bob@rankin.org never goes to spam and always goes to my "Social" folder. I just did a rough estimate... I have about 1300 filters in my gmail account. It works well for me. I do sometimes get legit email in my spam folder, and I sometimes get spam in my regular email, but both are rare, though it does seem that anything with the word "trump" in it gmail always wants to send to spam unless I have a filter set. I suspect I know why -- some I like to read, others I pass. Maybe Ann is confused about my preferences. ;)

Posted by:

21 Nov 2020

I have used Yahoo Mail since its inception but
after it was purchased by Verizon - Yahoo's blocking service has disappeared and, in addition, I am receiving over 1,000 spam emails every week mainly in SPAM folder but now increasing day by day in my INBOX as well. So, with respect, Yahoo is not filtering anything for me - is it because I am not a paying customer? I would like to know which dating site sold my email address - cannot say here what I would do to it.

Posted by:

21 Nov 2020

Gmail's spam filters cannot be turned off. I use Thunderbird. I would prefer to receive spam unfiltered rather than have to go into gmail for every one of my five business accounts to see what stupid errors gmail have made in sending genuine emails (from regular senders listed in my address book) -
I have lost business in this way and frankly I cannot afford this, so I am changing over my gmail accounts to SFR, Free, Protonmail and Luxembourg on Line.

Posted by:

23 Nov 2020

My gmail filter never sends messages larger than 0 MB to spam, i.e. it sends nothing to spam. I download email with Thunderbird, and rely on Thunderbird's spam detection. Several messages land in the junk folder daily, some of which I ought to designate "not junk", but that is too much work.

Posted by:

Kenneth Gash
23 Nov 2020

After reading this article I took a look at my Gmail spam folder. Much to my surprise, I had 241 messages there. Unfortunately, almost all of the messages marked as spam were actually legitimate messages that should be in my inbox. There were only 5 messages that were legitimate spam.
Have I set the spam filter incorrectly?

Posted by:

Jeff Richardson
23 Nov 2020

I get a lot of email with junk to the right of the @ symbol, for example -
I use Microsoft Outlook 365, so I choose "Block Sender" which moves the email to my "Junk E-Mail" Folder, but many times the same e-mail still lands in my inbox because the data to the right of @ is different from the previous block. I think it works sometimes, but is still time wasting.

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