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LAWRENCE J. MAGID: Taming the e-mail beast

November 16, 2001 

My wife got mad at me a few months ago because I didn't answer her e-mail. I wasn't trying to avoid her; her message just got lost amid all the junk mail I received that day.

Although easy to delete, unsolicited e-mail - or "spam" - clogs your inbox and makes it harder to find important messages.

An excellent new book, "Overcome E-Mail Overload" by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood ($29.95 from World Wide Webfoot Press), has helped me at least partially tame the e-mail beast. I still get spam, but now I can more easily separate it from important mail. There are two editions: one for Outlook and the other for Eudora.

The easy-to-follow book is packed with suggestions on removing clutter from your in box. The techniques in the book don't apply to the free version of OutlookExpress, AOL, Netscape or other e-mail programs, but some of the general principles do.

Regardless of what e-mail system you use, avoid posting your e-mail address in public places and be careful to whom you send it. One technique is to give out your real e-mail address only to friends and associates. If you're subscribing to a mailing list or interacting with a Web site that you don't completely trust, use an alternate address that you can get free at Hotmail, Yahoo! or other Web-based mail services. Having your address posted on a Web site is a definite spam magnet. You're also inviting spam if you post your address on newsgroups or any other public forums.

AOL users who participate in chat rooms or auditoriums are sitting ducks. A good strategy is to set up a separate screen name for those occasions and to try to keep your regular screen name private.

Sherwood and most other e-mail experts advise that you don't respond to invitations to have your name removed from spam lists. This is how spammers verify that you're a real person. The result can be more spam, not less. It is OK to ask to be removed from lists run by reputable organizations.

Some of us have no choice but to go public with our e-mail addresses. Mine is everywhere, but I've managed to control things a bit by using the filtering functions in Outlook. Other e-mail programs have similar tools.

Outlook's filters can highlight important mail and isolate potential junk. Try using the Organize icon to display messages from important people in red and to move suspected junk to a separate folder. Outlook has its own rules for identifying junk mail. I've enhanced it considerably by using the rules wizard on the Tools menu to scan the content of my mail and isolate messages with common spam words such as "mortgage," "sex," "Viagra" and "credit."

Outlook allows you to assign categories or priorities based on name, address or any other content of an incoming message. Everyone in my address book is automatically assigned to the "contacts" category. I also created a "VIP" category for very important mail. I then set up a "view" of my inbox that displays the category and highlights mail from VIPs in red. You also can assign categories on the domain name, such as "," so you won't miss that invitation to join President Bush's Cabinet.

Sherwood also recommends using filters to distinguish between mail that specifically lists you in the "to" field versus bulk mail in which you're listed in the "bcc" or "cc" category. Outlook's rules system is complicated enough to warrant a book such as Sherwood's. Outlook Express has a less sophisticated but easy-to-use e-mail rules system that you configure from the Tools menu.

Not all of my important mail comes from contacts and VIPs. I love hearing from readers and tech companies. With much of my spam filtered out, it's easier to find the mail I want to read.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Copyright © 2001 Tribune Media Services

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