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A good number of Internet Service Providers offer decent security features, still many still don’t. If your ISP doesn’t block viruses or filter spam, or if your unhappy with their services, you have more options than you might think.

Changing ISPs to one with better service isn’t necessarily an easy thing for many individuals and small businesses. If you’re a cable modem customer you probably can’t just take your business to some other cable company. And almost certainly, you’d have to change your e-mail address, a major hassle.

Of course, it’s possible to run local spam filtering software, but who needs another program hogging memory on their system and slowing it down? For example, I run Norton Antispam and my performance is about as fast Manny Ramirez running out a grounder to second. I’m about fed up with how slow it is.

During a recent eSeminar, Ziff Davis Media’s online teleconferences, I advocated for the managed-service approach to enterprise spam filtering. (You can still listen to this conference and view the presentations here.)

Services like Postini and Frontbridge offer advantages for enterprises. These services can do a better job than most at filtering spam because they get to see a lot of it, and a lot of ham (legitimate mail) as well. Most of them scan mail for viruses and worms with at least one scanning technology. They can queue your mail for you if your own servers go down. Last, but not least, an inherent feature of their architecture can keep the spam and viruses off your network completely.

There are also similar spam services geared towards individuals and small businesses too. I’ve found four. Two are very inexpensive, and in a blast from the dotcom era, one of them is free. Unlike changing your ISP, you don’t have to change your e-mail address. The service becomes the client for your ISP mail, and you retrieve your filtered mail from the service.

I reviewed AlienCamel (the name is an anagram of “Clean Email”) for PC Magazine a few months ago. The service worked pretty well, and even though it’s geared towards individuals it has a lot of the same advantages as the enterprise products, plus some unique advantages.

Like the enterprise products, AlienCamel scans for viruses, although you should definitely scan locally for extra security. Like the big guys, AlienCamel gets to see a lot more spam than any product running on a desktop can. And because the mail is filtered before you get to it, you don’t waste Internet bandwidth and disk space on spam and viruses.

AlienCamel also gives you the option of using IMAP for your mail client, even if your ISP only offers POP3. If you’re unfamiliar with IMAP, it basically allows you to have server-side folders and synchronize them with your host-side mail client.

However, there’s a big problem for many people with IMAP: Symantec’s desktop security products, such as Norton Antivirus, only scan POP3 mail. Even though AlienCamel scans for viruses, you still need to run your own local antivirus protection. So be warned: if you run Norton Antivirus, you’ll have to use AlienCamel in POP3 mode (I believe POP3 support is part of the IMAP spec).

Since my review, AlienCamel has added a number of enhancements. They now have full Web-mail access to the account, which is great for when you’re on the road. They now support disposable addresses, which are throwaway addresses that forward mail to your real account; so if the address starts to receive spam you can simply delete it. The other changes are a bit esoteric. AlienCamel costs $15.99 for 6 months.

Next page: Fusemail, OnlyMyEmail and Mailshell…

I looked at Mailshell Spamcatcher early this year. The review examined the company’s Outlook plug-in, but it also has an end-user service. You likely won’t find it on Mailshell’s Web site even if you look, because the service isn’t a part of the company’s core business anymore.

Mailshell appears more interested in pushing its business-oriented service that filters entire mail domains. One reason is that the mail account service for individuals isn’t based on the company’s core Mailshell SDK engine, so it’s not a product with much future for them. When I tested the Outlook plug-in I also looked at the service. I considered it complicated but a great idea; so it’s worth consideration, even though Mailshell’s lack of commitment will give potential customers pause (and since its competitors appear more interested in the segment).

FuseMail is a free service. I haven’t had a chance to test it, but the site gives a pretty clear idea of what it’s about. Customers can use it as a centralized service to consolidate multiple mail accounts and from there read the mail from multiple devices. It too creates an IMAP account. While I see nothing about antivirus support, FuseMail claims to support Yahoo, Hotmail and even AOL mail accounts in addition to POP3 and IMAP accounts.

FuseMail goes several steps further, creating essentially a server-side Outlook-type product. The service includes a server-side address book, calendar, notes, tasks list and journal (it sure sounds like Outlook). There’s a full Web interface to all these features in addition to the IMAP version. It looks pretty nice (check out the online demo.)

In addition, the Journal and Tasks interfaces aren’t useless like the ones in Outlook. If there were a interface to synch them with Outlook, the service that would be truly impressive. In fact, the company said that an Outlook plug-in for FuseMail’s services is “coming soon.” (Hot dog, the FuseMail product looks really interesting! I’ll be coming back to take a deeper look at it in the future.)

FuseMail’s spam filtering has a Bayesian look to it; you can execute rules on mail depending on whether the filter thinks it’s likely or very likely to be spam. Its rules engine is also used to consolidate mail from multiple accounts.) The filters also uses whitelists and blacklists.

Is FuseMail one of those nutty dotcom ideas that can’t survive because it makes no money? For the moment yes, but they say that “coming soon” they will have versions of their software for multi-user organizations and a service provider version for ISPs to buy in order to provide to their customers as a service, and it would appear an extra-cost one. Presumably these other two versions will cost money. I truly hope they offer antivirus protection at least as an extra-cost option, because it’s a major hole in their virtual offering at this point.

Unlike FuseMail, OnlyMyEmail is a mail-only system. While it does provide antivirus scanning in addition to spam filtering, it provides only a POP3 account for the user, and both of those only at higher levels of service. It also has consolidation for up to three outside accounts and can read AOL and Web-based mail.

There are three levels of monthly service: the $3 Basic, $4 Plus and $5 Pro versions.

The Basic account is bare bones, lacking antivirus, Web mail access, or even a OnlyMyEmail address. Instead, with the Basic account, the service periodically scans your mail account and deletes messages it determines to be spam. This approach means there’s a reasonable chance you’ll get spam when you check your mail, because some message will have come in since the last time the service came around. For this reason, OnlyMyEmail asks that Basic customers only check for mail infrequently, and for this reason, two users can’t check an account at the same time.

Basic is clearly a bad deal; for only $1 or $2 more per month you can get many more capabilities, including an OnlyMyEmail address and the ability to send mail through their SMTP servers. However, this makes it more expensive than the competition.

OnlyMyEmail’s site touts its spam filtering capabilities. In places, the company comes close to saying that customers won’t find any false positives, period. This is quite a claim. At the same time, they provide little information about their techniques, so it’s impossible to judge their credibility.

The closest the company comes with an explanation is to say that it doesn’t try to identify spam, instead it tries to identify legitimate mail. This is an interesting idea and one I’ve heard discussed in the past as a different approach for Bayesian filtering. Still, there’s a long stretch (and plenty of details) from a discussion to an actual implementation in a product or service.

This particular market presents end-users with an interesting variety of options for services, and as a general matter they have advantages when compared to desktop anti-spam software in terms of both performance and features. Services is the anti-spam model of the future.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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