How to survive email hell

It all used to be not only easy, but somewhat magical – you connect to the internet, type and send a message and almost instantly it appears on someone’s screen no matter where they are. These days, if the message even gets to its recipient, it’s bound to show up in the midst of a long list of junk messages, frequently ignored or deleted before it’s read.

Email has become such a nightmare that many organisations are switching to instant messaging or other less problematic forms of internet communication. But all is not yet lost. Here are some basic tips for surviving the hell that today’s email has become and for recovering it as a valuable business tool.

Dealing with Spam

Ever wonder why you’re getting junkmail? More than 9 out of every 10 emails sent are unsolicited junkmail messages or so-called ‘spam’, and this costs internet users billions per year worldwide in lost productivity as well as the security measures and extra capacity needed to cope with it.

Spamming will continue as long as it’s economically viable – if only none of us would ever respond, they’d dry up overnight – and legislation is unlikely to solve the problem. The only solution in our control is to try to filter out and block the spam messages before they get to our inboxes. To do this, we can use a combination of a more intelligent email client (Outlook and Thunderbird have built-in junk mail controls), move to a hosted email service (such as Google mail) or have email filtered on a local mail server (like Exchange) or by a third-party service.

The most effective filtering is by a ‘whitelist’, only allowing emails through from selected recipients. That might seem a bit extreme (and it is!), but it could be very useful to have one email account protected in this way, guaranteeing key contacts a reliable means of communicating with you. ‘Blacklists’ – whereby messages from identified sources are automatically considered junk – are another popular way of email filtering, but they are inherently problematic. The blacklisted ‘source’ (outgoing email server) is often also used by many legitimate senders, which means people and organisations can have their messages unfairly blocked. This has been a problem for users of larger internet providers like BT. Besides, spammers change servers all the time, so it’s also not that effective.

Good filtering systems will try to intelligently decipher the contents of incoming mail and determine whether or not it’s junk. You should be able to set different thresholds for what should be deleted automatically and what can be delivered to your users’ local junkmail folders (where they can manually check to recover any legitimate messages falsely deemed junk by the system). In the end, with any such system, you need to strike the right balance between eliminating as much spam as possible while not unduly risking deleting real messages.

Keeping viruses and trojans at bay

While ‘malware’ – malicious software – such as viruses and trojans falls outside the scope of this article, suffice it to say that the majority of these are carried in emails. If you are running a Windows PC, you need to be running an up-to-date antivirus software package, preferably one like Grisoft AVG that will automatically scan every incoming and outgoing email message for viruses, and stop them in their tracks if one is found.

Mass email newsletters

One of the first business-related uses of email to fall victim to increased junkmail security measures is the sending out of email messages to a large number of recipients, such as is commonly done with an email newsletter. The problem with any message with more than, say, 5 or 10 addressees is that it looks very much like a spam message, and will very often than not get deleted or rejected by the receiving mail server. To get around this, you could always send the message out one at a time or in very small groups, but this would take ages.

The solution is to switch from sending the email newsletters from a normal email application like Outlook or Thunderbird, to a dedicated mailing list service. There are hosted solutions available online or you can install software such as GroupMail on your PC. This application can send your email out to a large number of people in such a way that it looks like every one is being individually addressed. While this won’t solve every problem, it will at least help you manage the situation, as it will keep track of unknown or rejected addresses, and even try again later. It can also jazz up your marketing by allowing you to customise each newsletter with the recipient’s name or other information drawn from your contact database. GroupMail is free to try, so it’s worth giving it a go if you want to send out large mailings.

Large emails

It’s true that broadband has ushered in larger internet capacity for the masses, but it doesn’t mean that you can send emails of any size. Most email systems have a set limit for emails, such as 2MB or 10MB, and will reject messages over that limit, so it’s a good idea to make attachments as small as possible by resizing images or using the PDF format to compact larger documents before sending them.

Unreachable contacts

Another common complaint these days is that people cannot send emails to or receive emails from particular addresses. The messages either go missing or bounce back with an ‘undeliverable’ message. There can be a number of reasons that this occurs, most of which relate to the spam filtering measures described above. If you are missing messages from a particular sender, check your junkmail box or have your IT support people check the filter logs on the server or third-party service. If your own messages are going missing, your recipient should do this at their end.

If the messages aren’t even reaching the server, you may be faced with the faulty ‘blacklist’ problem referred to above. Try to find out what blacklist is being used and what criteria are being applied. It’s very difficult to get a listed server removed from a blacklist, but not impossible. It’s usually easier to change the outgoing mail server to circumvent the problem, or to add what is called an SPF (sender policy framework) entry to the domain name’s DNS records to confirm that the mail server being used is a legitimate one for the domain. If the problem is persistent, sometimes the only solution is to change internet service provider and thereby get new mail server settings.

‘Normal’ email problems

Like the normal post office, there are times that electronic mail just doesn’t get delivered – or gets delayed and delivered much later. Somewhere along the delivery chain a server goes down, mail gets held up or goes astray. If an undeliverable message is received, pass it along to your IT support team as they may be able to trace the origin of the problem. But otherwise expect that email like regular mail is not entirely foolproof and not designed to be relied upon absolutely.

Security

As a final note, it’s important to keep in mind that normal email messages are like postcards and can be read at any stage along the delivery path. If you need to use email to send personal or sensitive information, you can encrypt your messages using the open standard called PGP (‘pretty good privacy’). There are free plugins available for popular mail programs like GnuPG for Outlook or EnigMail for Thunderbird that, once set up, will automatically handle the encryption and decryption of messages for you. That way only your intended recipient will be able to read your message.