Several years ago, a rising deluge of spam, much of it offensive to the firm's largely female workforce, prompted Tollman & Wiker InWest (TWIW) Insurance Services, LLC, to seek better ways of protecting its incoming e-mail."We felt as employers we should protect our staff from this stuff," recalls Kevin Dickmann, who, as technology manager, ran IT single-handedly for the 85-person insurance agency based in Ventura, Calif. "Every morning, our employees were finding 30 to 40 messages they had to review and delete." What's more, e-mail's importance to daily operations was growing by leaps and bounds, so keeping it safe and sound was critical.

While the insurance companies with which TWIW works still depend heavily on faxing, the agency relies on e-mail for getting proposals to clients quickly and sending them information for verification. "E-mail is critical to our operations," Dickmann states. "It's part of our workflow. But, we care about keeping people free from offensive things and promoting a good work policy," he says. "So, we started looking around."

He settled on server software that scoured incoming mail for spam and viruses, but that setup soon revealed a serious weakness. While it did manage to block gobs of spam and viruses, fine-tuning the system's spam filter consumed so much of Dickmann's time that he ended up working late many evenings and on weekends, too.

"For the first three months," Dickmann recalls, "I had to live with this program all the time. Then, I had to look at it for maybe a half-hour a day to keep its filters updated, which was still a lot of time for managing a system that didn't actually contribute anything to the business we were trying to run." Without constant tuning, the filters would lose their effectiveness, blocking too much legitimate mail and permitting spam to pass through untouched.

E-Mail Protection

Indeed, that was Dickmann's big problem with running his own mail-protection server. "I was using only 12 or 13 filtering rules," he explains. "But some of these were dictionary-based-lists of words I would identify as indicating spam. I was constantly playing around with these lists and figure out the right sequence in which to apply each rule. In a way, you had to be an expert in that product to make it work effectively, and becoming an expert was a significant cost to our organization."

So, as soon as TWIW's contract permitted, Dickmann switched the agency to an outsourced mail-protection service that members of the AMS User Group, an Irving, Texas not-for-profit trade association for independent insurance agencies, recommended.

Dickmann reports that in seven months of use, the e-mail protection service, provided by AppRiver, Gulf Breeze, Fla., has virtually eliminated spam and trapped only one or two legitimate messages a month - so-called false positives.

With only a small change to TWIW's listing in the Internet's Domain Name Service, or DNS, all e-mail messages to TWIW's mail server are automatically diverted to one of AppRiver's data centers. There, the messages get thoroughly analyzed for spam and malicious software code. This testing typically takes less than a second, and as soon as a message passes muster, it's sent on its way to TWIW's mail server.

The filters applied to each e-mail run the gamut. For instance, AppRiver maintains an up-to-the-minute list of active known spammers. Messages arriving from any of these addresses are immediately quarantined while those matching the entries on TWIW's own white list of approved senders get to move forward for further tests. Every aspect of a message gets analyzed, from routing data in its header to the words, phrases, and URLs in its body. Because TWIW's outsourcer views so much mail-analyzed on behalf of some 4,200 clients-its staff can identify and react to new forms of spam and to mass mailing campaigns much more quickly than a company such as TWIW could do on its own.

Electing to use an outsourced server has effectively saved TWIW from having to hire an additional IT person. "Now, I can focus on things that are critical," says Dickmann. "I may have 12 hours of work every day but I'd like to get it done in only eight hours."

Topping Junk Mail

Having mail filtered beyond the agency's own network provides other advantages, Dickmann notes. Now that the flow of junk mail has been shut down, there's less of a load on TWIW's Internet connection and internal network, employees enjoy faster delivery of legitimate mail and faster viewing of Web pages.

In addition, TWIW is protected against the harvesting of its mail directory, a technique spammers use to steal an organization's complete list of internal mail addresses, as well as denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, which attempt to shut down a mail server by flooding it with bogus messages.

"It's pretty convenient," says Dickmann. "And now I have time for more interesting projects like integrating voice mail with e-mail."

Perhaps no security software or service can protect every element of a business's computers all of the time. But as TWIW grows - the company plans to employ 200 by the end of next year and is going national with an insurance product designed specifically for retail check-cashing outlets-having a specialist on hand to protect all electronic messaging is a major comfort.

John Verity is a business writer based in South Orange, N.J.

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