Do you check your spam?

Several times lately I and others have found (belatedly) emails in our spam folders that shouldn't have been there.

JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

That doesn’t sound so bad does it? I mean the spam folder does also contain all of the spam that we do not want to see and surely all we need to do is check it? Right?

Well not quite. The problem does appear to be getting worse and really should we be accepting that? Can we rely on email anymore? Missed emails could cost you money, through missed bills or business.

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What if it was Royal Mail and the emails were letters? What if the letters had been withheld, because they were deemed to be junk? There would be an uproar I am sure, especially from businesses who may rely on invoices being sent out to stay in business.

This can actually happen to emails. If you use POP3 to download your email to an email client, it only downloads the messages in your inbox and nothing else. You may find there is a junk folder on the server which you will never see unless you log in using a browser (or just use IMAP instead of POP3).

Some mail servers may even delete an email without sending it, if it scores highly enough and is deemed to be spam.

What is causing all these problems exactly? Could it be the spammers are getting better at mimicking real messages between real people? Spam filters learn by people reporting messages as spam, but if those messages are just like the ones we actually want to read, then errors are bound to creep into the system. Even us humans may not get it right 100 per cent of the time.

The answer of course is to check your spam folder as often as you think sensible, which may be multiple times per day if you receive a lot of email. This then begs the question, what is the point in having a spam folder at all, if we are spending all of our time reading spam? The original purpose was to obviate the need to read spam, which obviously isn’t working.

Is there a solution to the never ending problem of spam? That is a difficult question to answer. Whatever system we use, whether it be email, social media or something else, will still be susceptible to spammers. Machine learning is getting better, so maybe there is hope for us yet. Until then though, remain vigilant.