Outlook spam filter being allowed to die

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Microsoft has announced that they’ll stop updating the Outlook spam filter (“Smartscreen”) at the end of this month – on 1st Nov 2016.

This might be a worry, but not a disaster, for most Outlook users and we’ll explain why.

What’s Happening

From 1st Nov 2016  there will be no more updates to the system which tries to detect spam in arriving messages.

Microsoft has given it’s customers a whole months notice of this change – big of them.

Older types of spam will be detected but anything substantially new (and spammers are trying new tricks all the time) may show up in the Inbox.  Over time, Outlook’s ability to detect spam will become worse.

This applies to Outlook for Windows (at least 2007 to 2016 versions) and Outlook for Mac.

Crucially, Exchange Server 2016 and earlier which only use the supplied spam filter will also be left without updates. More on that below.

Smartscreen in Windows and the Edge browser, to protect against malicious links and downloads, will continue to work and be updated.

Why the change?

Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s clearly another cost-cutting and revenue-raising move by Microsoft.  Maintaining spam filters is expensive and this change will encourage Exchange Server customers to buy an external spam checking technology, often from Microsoft.

While the change is self-serving, it does make sense and should have little impact on most Outlook users.

Most email checking is already done by your mail host.  Any mail hosting service will have some level of spam filtering in place.  Certainly Gmail, Outlook.com/Hotmail, Yahoo mail etc all have effective spam filtering already in place.  Most, if not all, ISP’s have spam filtering too.

These online services are much faster and more effective at detecting and trapping new types of spam.  If a new junk message is detected, it can be analyzed and a counter-measure added to servers very quickly (usually a matter of minutes).

If you’re using Outlook.com or Office 365 hosted email then your email is already being checked by the same Smartscreen technology before Outlook for Windows/Mac sees the messages.  The online Smartscreen will have more recent spam filters than Outlook software, so the checking is better.

It’s becoming increasing rare for email to be stored solely on one computer (eg in Outlook for Windows/Mac).  More common is to have email/calendar/contacts saved ‘in the cloud’ and accessed from multiple devices (desktop, laptop, phone, browser).  It makes sense to check for spam before messages arrive in the online mailbox instead of being checked by just one of the mail clients.

There may be rare cases of a mail host which has no spam filtering but it’s very unusual.  We know of many cases where a mail host (usually an ISP) will say they have no spam filtering, but that’s just the ignorance of the support staff.  In reality, there is a spam filter but it’s hidden from even the ISP support staff.

There is a downside to online spam filtering; false positives.  There are messages you want to see which are mistakenly removed as spam with no notice to the intended receiver.  Order confirmation and lost password emails are often wrongly trapped.  Trying to identify and fix these mistakes is difficult and time-consuming.

For those interested, incoming messages sometimes go through multiple spam filters before reaching your online Inbox.  To spread the heavy load of email checking, big systems have an initial filter which quickly clears out the obvious spam emails then a second or more servers which do more careful checks of what remains.

Outlook for Windows/Mac is OK

In most cases, the messages that Outlook collects are ‘pre-filtered’ already.  The spam filter in Outlook should already have little or nothing to do because the ‘cloud’ has already caught and deleted the junk email.

Most Outlook for Windows users should see no change in their email or amount of spam.   The Outlook Junk Email feature will continue to work but will have little to do because better spam filtering is already happening ‘upstream’ at your mail host.

Outlook’s Junk Email settings will still be there, so will the Junk Email folder.  We have Junk Email set to Low, as a precaution.

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A check of our Junk Email folders shows no spam has been trapped by Outlook for Windows for over a year!  That’s because the online services have done the job already.

There’s NO need to buy additional anti-spam software.  Microsoft’s announcement may be used as an excuse by software companies to sell their spam software, but’s not necessary.

Workarounds

As we’ve explained, with most spam filtering already happening ‘in the cloud’, most Outlook users will have nothing to do.

If you’re one of the rare folks who have a truly unfiltered mail host (i.e. all messages are delivered to your online Inbox with no spam checking) from 1st Nov 2016 you’ll gradually see an increase in undetected spam as Outlook’s Smartscreen filter becomes less relevant.

You could buy anti-spam software but those tools don’t always ‘play nice’ with Outlook (many Outlook add-ons have trouble).  You have to pay for the software and regular updates too. Office-Watch.com hasn’t ever reviewed, let alone recommended, any additional anti-spam software.

The better and cheaper option is using an existing, free, online service.  Gmail and Outlook.com have free spam filters as part of their standard offering.   It’s something they don’t mention a lot because junk email filtering is taken for granted these days.

Each of the main online mail hosts has an option to regularly grab messages from other mail hosts and put them in your ‘new’ Inbox on their service.  These features are intended to help people migrate and combine their different email accounts into a single online Inbox.   When messages are ‘fetched’ to your new Inbox they’ll be spam filtered for free by Gmail/Outlook.com etc.

Good, timely, spam filtering is just one of the many advantages to using an online mail store, free or paid.

The options for migrating to a modern online cloud service, including ‘fetching’ of messages from other mail hosts, is in the section ‘Moving your old email address’ part of Organizing Outlook Email, 3rd edition.  Migrating to a 21st Century cloud-based email system is a major part of the book.

Exchange Server

Most independently hosted Exchange Server systems already have a third-party anti-spam system as an add-on.  The network administrators handle all that for individual mailbox users.

Some ES versions include the Microsoft Smartscreen system to check emails and the updates for that will also end on 1st Nov 2016.   Those servers will have to be upgraded to add some type of external anti-spam system.

Microsoft’s own Exchange Online Protection is used by Office 365 hosting and Outlook.com .  Other Exchange Server systems can buy access to the same service.  There are other Exchange Server compatible anti-spam systems available.

Questions?   Concerns?

Spam is a concern to a lot of people and this change is likely to worry people.  Please ask us and we’ll respond at Office-Watch.com.  We’d like to know what you’re thinking about this subject so we can explain or allay fears.

Go to our Feedback page.  Please try to include details in your comments (type/version of software, web links etc).

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