Have you noticed an increase in foreign spam recently?

Microsoft Outlook 2013 logoDuring the last month or two I have become aware of a huge increase in the amount of spam getting into my inbox from abroad. Not only is a lot of it not in English, but a lot of it even uses different character sets (such as Chinese characters).

To begin with, I kept asking myself why someone in China would want to spam me in a way that couldn’t possibly benefit them, but then I worked out that it’s probably just the same economics that make any type of spamming worth doing. What it boils down to is that the variable cost of sending a single spam email is almost zero. So much of this is so automated to set up (and virtually costless to distribute) that the only measurable cost of sending spam to 1000 email addresses is the cost of acquiring the addresses. Does it really matter if the response rate is measured in fractions of one percent if the cost of achieving that response rate is even closer to nothing?

Anyway, analysing the economics doesn’t stop the rubbish from pouring in. What can you do about it? Well, if you use what is probably the best email program out there – Microsoft Outlook – then you can block a lot of it from reaching your inbox. Actually, that’s not strictly true. The wording in the Outlook program suggests that you are “blocking” email from reaching you, but in fact it is still being delivered – it just gets automatically diverted away from your inbox and into your Junk folder.

Outlook 2013 Junk Mail Option

Click on the area circled in red to get to the Junk Mail Options menu

This won’t help at all if you don’t use Outlook and it won’t help if you collect your email on several devices – most of them not employing Outlook. Nevertheless, it seems that a lot of people work like me and have one computer, running Outlook, that is the “main hub” of their email activity, so keeping this one email “centre” clean of foreign spam might be worth a few minutes of effort.

So, how do we filter foreign email in Outlook? The example here uses Outlook 2013 but I don’t suppose the earlier versions are very different:

  • Go to the Home tab and click on the icon of the head and shoulders in the Delete group
  • Left-click on the last item in the menu that pops up (Junk Email Options)
  • Left-click on the International tab at the top of the window that has just opened

Blocked Top-Level Domain List

Outlook 2013 Blocked Top-Level Domain ListClicking on this option allows you to block all email that comes from an address that ends in the country code of the place you wish to block. So, for instance, if the sender’s email address is fred@mydomain.af and you have blocked email from Afghanistan’s top-level domain then Fred’s email will be blocked. Note that Fred’s email would not be blocked if his address didn’t end in “.af”, so mail from fred@spamsarus.com would get through even if the email originated in Afghanistan.

It takes a minute or two to work through the list, so it might be quicker to click on the “select all” button and then individually un-select the ones you don’t wish to block.

I’ve done a bit of research to see if adding an email address to your “safe senders” list would take precedence over blocking an entire country’s top-level domain. I couldn’t find a definitive answer so you would need to test it if you wanted, for instance, just one individual email address in India to get through to you.

Blocked Encoding List

Outlook 2013 Blocked Encodings ListThis option doesn’t block email addresses from specific countries, or even block email written in different languages. What it does do, however, is block email written in specific “character sets”. For example, there are two sets of Chinese letters (Traditional and Simplified) that you can block. As another example, you can also block all email written in the Syrillic script.

It would be easy to argue that these filters could be made more sophsiticated, but they are definitely better than nothing. In my own case, I think that the ten minutes I spent setting them up will be more than repaid by not needing to manually delete this foreign spam – especially if the current trend for increasing foreign spam continues.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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