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Janet Roberts

How to Avoid the SpamAssassin
By Janet Roberts

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Does your newsletter contain an assurance that it's not spam because it complies with a certain U.S. Senate bill? That's one sure sign of spam, but I've also seen it in newsletters from legitimate, although naive, publishers.

That particular "test" is also one of the top-scoring tests in SpamAssassin, an anti-spam filtering program that examines an email message's headers and content for phrases and coding commonly used by bulk emailers and assigns points for each offending feature.

(I'm not listing the bill's number here, because that would score an automatic 4.609 points against today's newsletter. A score of 5.9 might be enough to block the email at an Internet service provider that uses SpamAssassin.)

When SpamAssassin tags a message as likely spam, it adds a report to the email and routes it to a "junk-mail" folder on the user's computer.

SpamAssassin runs on UNIX or Windows platforms from the consumer to the ISP level. Judging from its list of rules for tagging spam, just about any email you send will register a score. All you can do, it seems, is to avoid any obvious triggers and hope users troll their junk-mail folders.

Here are some common email features and their points:

  • HTML email with nonwhite backgrounds: 1.346
  • Auto-executing JavaScript code: 3.338 (remember the Yahoo! email editing problem?)
  • Talking about checks/money orders: 4.465
  • Addresses the reader as "Dear [email address]:" 3.092
  • Suggests you might have received the email as a mistake: 3.7
  • Uses a tracking ID number, usually in the subject line: 4.332
  • Gives instructions for getting off the list: 4.2
  • Includes a form that launches an email: 3.239
  • Invalid time in header, such as a nonexistent time zone: 4.395 (although any tinkering with the date or time will add points)
  • A "remove" URL contains an email address: 2.648
  • The "reply to" form is empty: 2.595
  • The "to" form lists "undisclosed recipients:" 3.461 to 4.034

On the positive side, this list of tests also shows how SpamAssassin detects emails that probably are newsletters and subtracts those scores from the overall total. Most of it depends on how you set up your headers.

Some examples:

  • Sending from known mailing-list software: -5
  • Subject includes "news," "newsletter," "list," or indicates daily, weekly or monthly: -4
  • Subject lists a frequency or names a month: -3.5
  • Date in subject: -4

You can see the current list of rules here.

(Including instructions to click a link will cost you 0.847 point.)

Ezine-Tips for August 12, 2002

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