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ChoiceMail: a traffic cop to steer away spammers

Spam is the scourge of the Internet, and it may yet kill e-mail as a valuable communications medium. Millions of people have to devote precious time every day to deleting these offensive, deceptive and unsolicited marketing pitches from the worst bottom-feeders in all of capitalism.

This crisis has spurred frantic efforts to turn technology against the spammers, by devising methods to automatically identify and delete spam. They haven't been that effective, however, because the spammers learn to evade them with fake addresses and misleading text.

But I can report some good news in the war against spam. I've been testing an ingenious new antispam program from a small company in New Jersey that can eliminate spam from your e-mail inbox, without stopping any legitimate e-mail.

This program lives on your Windows PC, never routes your e-mail to a third-party computer and doesn't involve service charges. Its introductory price is $29.95.

The spam-fighting program, called ChoiceMail, was released by DigiPortal Software of Parsippany, N.J. It is available through the company's Web site (www.digiportal.com). In my tests, it cut my spam to zero.

ChoiceMail doesn't try to identify spam and block it. Instead, it shifts the burden of effort to the spammers, by requiring them to get your permission to deliver the spam. If they don't ask for permission, or if you refuse to grant it, their spam messages are blocked and never appear in your mailbox, period.

Here's how the program works: ChoiceMail examines every e-mail that comes in before it shows up in the inbox of your e-mail program. If the sender is on an approved list, easily created when you install the program, the e-mail immediately passes through. If the sender is on a rejected list, the e-mail is blocked and deleted.

If the sender is on neither list, ChoiceMail automatically sends an e-mail explaining that you are using a "permission-based" system. The e-mail asks the sender to go to a Web page and fill out a permission form. The request is then sent to you for approval. If you accept it, the e-mail is delivered to you. If not, the e-mail is killed.

As a practical matter, you will never see any of these requests from spammers, since they never receive the e-mail from ChoiceMail at their fake addresses, and the automated mailing systems that spammers use aren't equipped to stop and fill out a form. So, spam e-mail will be killed without any effort on your part.

If a legitimate party you don't know or anticipate sends you an e-mail and fills out the request form, you can accept him once and he'll never see the form again.

In my test, which lasted a week, ChoiceMail blocked 252 spam messages from 161 spammers. None of my regular correspondents ever saw a permission form because they were on my preapproved list.

The program initially blocked a few automated mailings I wanted, such as newsletters and purchase confirmations from online merchants. But I clicked on these inside ChoiceMail, and they were delivered and the senders added to the approved list. I got only one permission request. Because it was from a marketer, I refused it.

Installation is a snap. ChoiceMail can import the details of your e-mail accounts (and handle multiple accounts) from Outlook Express or Eudora, or you can enter the details manually. Building your initial list of approved senders is also easy. Just import your e-mail address book into ChoiceMail and check off the names you want approved. You can add people to this list as you go along with just a mouse click.

There are a few downsides to ChoiceMail. Right now, the program works only with standard Internet services that deliver e-mail through programs on your computer, such as EarthLink or AT&T. It doesn't work with America Online, corporate e-mail or Web-based e-mail systems such as Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. The company expects to add these services in the coming months.

Also, ChoiceMail won't automatically import e-mail-account information or address books from Outlook or Netscape. You have to do it manually. The company expects to add automated importing from Outlook soon.

The program doesn't work well if you access the same account from several computers. Only the PC running ChoiceMail will be spam-free, unless you take complex technical steps.

Despite these drawbacks, I can testify that ChoiceMail really works. If you hate spam, it could be your salvation.

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