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The other day we realized we were drowning in a sea of spam, with this editor alone receiving between eighteen to twenty thousand pieces of spam each month, and growing. MailWasher, the excellent tool we had used up to now was ideal when the flow of spam was more reasonable, but we had reached the point where, if we went on a trip, our mailbox was full, with bouncing messages, before we had checked into our hotel. We decided to look at challenge-and-response systems, and tried ChoiceMail, which had been recommended by a friend.

DigiPortal makes ChoiceMail in versions for in-house servers and thirdparty servers, as well as for single users, which is what we tried. They also have a free version if you have only a single POP3 account (ChoiceMail Free does not work with Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Hotmail Webmail accounts), and can live with some minor restriction of features. After downloading the trial software from, we installed it and configured it (we ignore here the internals of the system), which was quite straightforward. We were able to import our MailWasher friends list, which meant that the people with whom we were already in correspondence would not be subject to challenge. For them the change would be transparent.

For the rest, this is the way it works. You select a time-period for mail checks. The program downloads all your mail from all your accounts on that schedule. E-mail from people on your approved list (or who meet criteria you set up, such as accepting mail from listservs) go into the approved mail section of the program.

Everyone else gets sent a response asking them to take a few seconds to click on a link and verify themselves. When they do this, the system (as we have it configured) adds them to the approved list and moves their mail into the approved folder.

After a period of time that you specify (we chose three days), mail in the unknown senders list gets moved to the junk box, where it sits for another user-specified time (one day for us), at which point it is deleted. Over time ChoiceMail stabilized at 92% of the incoming mail being spam.

For the first few days we checked the unknown users list regularly, but stopped bothering once we had confidence in the system. Now we check it only if we expect something unknown, like order confirmation from a new on-line vendor.

Keep in mind that unlike MailWasher, which allows you to delete e-mail on the server without ever downloading it, ChoiceMail will download all email. This means you will be getting a lot of malware laden e-mail hitting your computer. The good news is that you don’t care, because A) your antivirus software will kill all of it and B) this mail will never receive a response to the challenge, so it will go from unknown to junk to gone without your ever having contact with it. The bad news is that if your anti-virus software makes a noise when it finds a virus, you will need to turn the noise feature off. Rest assured that this will not slip your mind for too long….

The only problem we foresee is travel. As an example, next month we will be away for several weeks in places as far apart, geographically, culturally, and alphabetically, as Argentina and Uzbekistan. During this period we won’t, for a variety of reasons, be able to directly access our e-mail. While we can have someone check it regularly, we may just set up a temporary account on one of the Web providers, and send all legitimate users an away message saying to either wait until we get back, or re-send to the temporary Web mail account.

The only oddity we experienced was that six months after we bought our copy they came out with a new version. You got a free upgrade if you bought it in the previous month, but those who bought it earlier in the calendar year had an upgrade charge of $19.95, or half the original purchase price. We feel this high a percentage this soon after purchase is untoward. Since we could see no functional difference between the old version and the new, we chose to stick with what we had.

If you have small amounts of spam then MailWasher continues to be a useful tool. If you are overwhelmed with spam then ChoiceMail is definitely worth a look.

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