Walt Mossberg

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When Spam Filters Aren’t Enough

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about antispam systems, programs to transfer files from PC to iPod and the VoiceOver system on Macs.

What is the best antispam system out there today? Spam filters don’t seem to work well for me.

Spammers change tactics so frequently that even the best, most adaptive filtering systems have a tough time coping. In my view, the strongest antispam approach isn’t filtering at all, but is called a challenge-response system.

With this approach, you set up a “white list” of approved senders — it could be your address book or some other list — and every email you get from anyone who isn’t on the list gets challenged. What this means is that the incoming email is intercepted and that the sender receives a message asking him or her to enter a constantly changing code number to prove that the message originated with a human.

The computer programs that blast out millions of spam messages usually can’t type in such a number, because it is presented as a graphic and in a wavy or faint typeface, and computers typically can’t copy and paste such graphical numerals automatically.

Messages that pass the challenge are delivered to you. Those that don’t, including nearly all spam, aren’t. Examples of such services are ChoiceMail, at digiportal.com; and EarthLink antispam, at earthlink.net.

The downside of this approach is that legitimate senders not on your list may find it a hassle to fill out the challenge and give up on emailing you. This is a problem mainly for business users who get desired emails from people they don’t know, such as prospective customers.

I would like to transfer files onto a new PC from my iPod. Are there any programs that do this?

There are multiple inexpensive programs designed to do exactly that. Some work with Windows computers, some with Apple Macintosh computers, and some have versions for both. One that I have found reliable is a British-made program called Music Rescue (formerly known as PodUtil) and can be found at www.kennettnet.co.uk/musicrescue/. It comes in both Windows and Mac versions and costs £10, or about $19.40.

Ever since I changed batteries 10 days ago in the wireless keyboard for my Apple iBook G4, there has been a voice that seems to be issuing commands to the computer, or at least is speaking what is happening when I do things. I must have done something wrong. How can I stop it?

I assume that, while fumbling with the keyboard to change the batteries, you accidentally turned on a feature called VoiceOver in Apple’s Mac OS X operating system that speaks aloud various alerts and actions. This feature is intended for certain disabled users who have difficulty seeing the screen or otherwise could benefit from spoken feedback when navigating their computer’s interface.

To turn VoiceOver off, you can just press the command (Apple) key and the F5 key simultaneously, though on a laptop such as yours you may have to also hold down the Function (fn) key at the same time. Or, you can launch System Preferences, select Universal Access, and then select the tab labeled “Seeing” and click the Off button under VoiceOver.

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Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

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