From: Patrick Douglas Crispen
Subject: TOURBUS -- 13 MAY 03 -- MORE ON WEB BUGS
Howdy, y'all, and greetings once again from deep behind the orange curtain in beautiful Irvine, California, home of the 1985 Super Bowl champions. :P
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On with the show ...
I apologize for not sending this post on Sunday as promised. I kind of got sidetracked watching the Survivor finale and reunion show. [And was it just me, or were Jenna and Matthew acting like more than friends?]
Anyway, I promised to fill you in on ways to squash Web bugs once and for all. For those of you who are just joining us, a few weeks ago I mentioned that more and more spammers are using something called Web bugs, little 1x1 transparent GIF images embedded in the HTML of spam emails. As Kee Hinckley at Somewhere.com points out
If a spammer sends you HTML mail with a [web bug] graphic in it, they can then track who opens the email. The graphic can have a unique name (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) which can be used to identify who it went to. And now the spammer knows something that no web-based cookie could ever find out automatically. They know what your email address is, they know that you have an HTML- enabled email program [like Eudora or Outlook], and they know that you read spam messages.
That's right, folks. Simply by opening a spam message you can generate more spam.
But there are a several different ways you can deal with these little nasties -- provided you have a POP3 or IMAP email account. Without getting too technical, if you check your email with a separate program like Eudora, Outlook, Netscape Communicator, the Bat, etc., more than likely you have a POP3 or IMAP email account. If you don't use a separate program -- for example, if you login to AOL to check your email, or if you have a Hotmail, Yahoo, MSN, or Excite email account -- you *probably* don't have a POP3 or IMAP email account. Of course, there are always exceptions. Check with your Internet service provider if you have any questions about what sort of email account you have.
Anyway, one of the easiest ways to bypass Web bugs, provided you have a POP3 or IMAP email account, is to just preview your email at
before you actually fire up your email program. Mail2Web is a free service that lets you read your POP email from any Internet-connected computer in the world. And, best of all, it displays ALL of your email messages as plain text. So the Web bugs are never even loaded.
If you have a PC, another solution is to use a free program called MailWasher. According to fellow Tourbus rider Mike Bonk,
I have been using MailWasher for a couple of months and am delighted. It reads the headers -- and part of the text if you want (no graphics, no HTML) of your incoming mail and lets you delete, keep, bounce or blacklist. With this I delete better than 80% of my incoming mail without opening it.
Theoretically the bouncing will convince a SPAMmer that your address is bad. But the vast majority of SPAMmers' addresses are bad and it doesn't get back to them.
Basic MailWasher is freeware, though there's a Pro version available as well.
You can download the free version of MailWasher at
MailWasher seems to be a pretty popular program -- 22 TOURBUS riders sent me emails recommending it. :)
Luc-Rock Paquin was one of the people recommending MailWasher, but added one small warning:
One of the downsides to this software is that it is not fully integrated within your e-mail application. You have to "wash" your e-mail, and then you can download it from your e-mail application.
Chris Sherman from SearchEngineWatch.com reviewed the software on April 3, 2002: http://www.searchenginewatch.com/searchday/article.php/2159611
If you have a few extra coins in your pocket (well, more like US$35), Ike Bottema writes that
There's an interesting proxy that I've purchased, Benign (aka B9) by Firetrust. It strips these bugs from all emails, depending on the security profile you select.
I haven't had a chance to try Benign, but it's made by the same people who make MailWasher. You can find out more about Benign at
Talking about "nines," Rick McKay used to be a MailWasher user, but switched to a program I've never heard of: "K9."
Basically what it does is acts as a local proxy server for your email connection. You configure it by putting your email accounts into the settings, then point your email client to localhost (actually, I think the setup configures your email client for you automagically). Either way it's pretty simple.
It sits in the tray and filters your mail as you download it, using built-in intelligence. When I first tried it, it misidentified some spam as good mail (false negatives), but now, after 10 days of use, it has yet to misidentify good mail as spam (false positives). To teach it, you open the program's main screen and tell it which emails were actually spam, or which ones were actually good. Over time, as you train it, it gets smarter and smarter. Currently it's successfully filtering over 95% of my spam correctly. I love it because I don't have to create specific rules. I just say, "Yes, no, yes, no," and pretty soon you don't have to teach it anymore.
You can find out more about K9 at
More than a few of TOURBUS' more technically proficient passengers wrote in to recommend SpamAssassin, a program that has (kind of) been ported to Windows but was originally written for the *nix platform. According to Teresa Haynes,
It tests messages for cetain criteria and pass/fails on a points system. We have ours set up to fail if the points for more than 5 points (This is also the default level).
That's the good news. The bad news is that the bastards at SpamAssassin consider TOURBUS to be spam. So I don't think I'll be including a plug for them in today's post. :P
[By the way, SpamAssassin's URL is http://www.spamassassin.org/ ]
A few people wrote in suggesting that one solution to the Web bug problem is to change your email client to Pegasus Mail, KDE Mail, PINE, VM Mailbook, or The Bat. Others suggested investing in a firewall, but I'm not sure that would work. A Web bug is just a 1 x 1 gif that is part of an HTML document. Blocking GIFs would make your Web surfing experience quite dull.
Cosimo Stufano recommends a three-pronged approach to killing Web bugs:
1. Use a spam filter to classify mail. I use POPFile ( http://popfile.sourceforge,net) which gives me better than 99% accuracy after training it with some 3000 emails.
2. Before examining the content of the spam folder either go offline or block Internet access with your firewall (Zone Alarm for instance). Move any non-spam mails to other folders.
3. Delete the content of the spam folder and go back online.
With this approach only the small fraction of spam messages that are misclassified and go to you inbox have a chance to use a web bug.
Finally, an unnamed reader considers
disabling HTML in email to be an extremely attractive alternative. I fail to see any added value in HTML email, and the first think I do with a mail client is to disable HTML. Note that therefore I don't have to worry about web bugs in my email. :-)
I sincerely hope that the Microserf who came up with the idea of HTML email dies the slowest, most excruciatingly painful death it is possible to die, and then roasts eternally in the hottest circle of hell.
And with that, I'll close the mailbag. I have a few more emails to read, but I'll get to those later. THANK YOU ALL FOR SENDING ME YOUR SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO DEAL WITH WEB BUGS! Y'all are the GREATEST! :)
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That's it for today. Have a safe and happy week, and we'll talk again soon. :)