Dealing with SPAM in OS X Mail and iCloud

| Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Over the last few months I started receiving an increasing amount of spam mails through my iCloud addresses (*@me.com). Being very careful with those, determining the reasons for the increase was easy:

Unfortunately now that I get spam, I have to deal with it. Apple’s automatic filtering seems to be pretty good, given that only a few spam mails get through every now and then, but like every automated solution, it has its weaknesses, resulting in false positives (wanted emails being treated as spam) and spam email getting through.

What particularly annoyed me about this situation, is that there’re no apparent mechanisms in iCloud or OS X Mail and on iOS to properly deal with spam and false positives.

iOS offers no way of marking an email as spam, and manually moving a spam email to the appropriate folder in the mail app — as some sites suggest — has no effect whatsoever. Then there’s the disconnect between the Mail app in OS X and iCloud: The spam filters and rules in the desktop application are entirely disconnected from iCloud’s spam filtering mechanisms, which means that any spam filters you set up on your Mac aren’t propagated to iCloud. On the other hand, email that iCloud sorts into the spam folder often aren’t recognised as such by the Mail app and — depending on the email sorting rules you may have set up — are sorted into other folders. iCloud itself (the web interface) has no spam settings, no way to set up rules, no way to correct mistakes the spam filter might’ve made, leaving the user with very few options.

There are a ways of dealing with unwanted emails in iCloud, though, as Apple’s website revealed after some searching:

  1. You can manually forward spam emails to spam@me.com: Only few people know of this, but it’s especially important if you’re using an email client other than Apple’s own Mail app on the Mac. From the Message menu, select Forward as Attachment and send the mail to spam@me.com.
  2. An even easier way is to click the Mark as SPAM button in OS X Mail. Doing this will not only move the email to the spam folder (unless you altered the default behaviour), but it’ll also forward the email to Apple.

Unfortunately, none of these options are present in iOS, which is something Apple should deal with sooner rather than later, especially because it sees iOS devices as almost independent from a host Mac at this point.

What’s even worse is the way iCloud deals with false positives. iCloud doesn’t offer a white list mechanism, allowing a user to add certain senders (bugsbunny@nospammail.com) or certain sender domains (*@disqus.com) to a list, so they won’t be marked as spam.

There is only one surefire way to deal with this:

Select an email that was falsely sorted into the spam folder in OS X Mail or any other email client. Make the app show the entire header information of the email. In OS X Mail you can do this by pressing CMD+SHIFT+H. Check the value “spamscore” or “X-spamscore”. If it’s anything other than “0”, the server has had some reason to think that the email in question might be spam.

In my case I didn’t receive emails from the commenting system disqus.com, which frankly drove me nuts. Notification emails from disqus always had spamscores between 11 and 81, meaning that all of them were sorted into my spam folder.

To solve this I had to contact iCloud support through this link. After the initial contact I was asked to send an email with the complete header information to the support person, who forwarded the email to the engineering staff. The engineering staff then added the domain to my individual white list, solving the problem.

There’s an interim solution for people who can’t wait for Apple to fix their issue: Set up a mail sorting rule in the iCloud web interface to sort mail from @domaininquestion.org to a folder in iCloud. This will override the spam sorting mechanism. The major drawback of this method is that Mail on iOS doesn’t show unread message counts or notifications for emails that don’t go into your regular inbox, and neither does Mail on OS X unless the user has changed the default behaviour.

As iCloud becomes more popular, which it certainly will, seeing that Apple urges every new iOS user to sign-up for an account, the amount of spam users have to deal with will increase. Better ways of handling this annoyance are needed on the server side, as well as on the user’s side.

Image Credit: Adapted from arnold | inuyaki

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