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If you have ever spent a few minutes looking for an email that the sender swears they sent the week before, but seems to have vanished into the ether now, then you are not alone. A new report by e-Media for Mimecast suggests that IT managers in the UK alone are wasting 5 Million man hours every year hunting for those lost messages. To put that into some perspective, it equates to more than £140 ($275) Million per year as a cost to the companies involved in time spent searching.

The independent survey reveals, unsurprisingly, that email is considered the most important communication medium as far as business is concerned today. Perhaps, given the propensity to do anything to reduce the amount of spam that interferes with our use of this medium, false positives (genuine emails identified and treated as spam) are behind the missing email epidemic.

The survey confirmed that 51% of IT managers questioned considered email to be the most important communication tool, the telephone mustered only 40% support and 'snail mail' a paltry 9%. The latter figure some cold comfort in a week where the UK postal service is in the midst of strike action and there is simply no post being collected or delivered for an entire week. But the survey also revealed a lack of confidence in the ability of spam filters to properly identify genuine email and not get caught in the false positives trap. This results in some 54% of respondents confirming that they check email quarantines at least once per day, and some 22% check it a few times a week, for those missing messages.

This paranoia comes with experience, as the survey also reveals that 60% of the IT managers had been bitten before by the false positive dog and lost important legitimate email at least once per month.

According to Peter Bauer, CEO of Mimecast, "These figures illustrate the inefficiency of the majority of LAN based and hosted anti-spam solutions available on the market today. Whilst staggeringly high, the amount of wasted time and lack of trust in existing solutions is not surprising, given the inadequacies of the various content-scoring methods used to identify and categorize spam. What is perhaps surprising is that email filtering products have been around for around a decade but they seem to have evolved less slowly than the ability of the spammers to elude them. IT Managers are constantly under pressure to provision as 24/7 spam-free email service and ensure legitimate email is not lost."

Of course, Mimecast would say that being in the business of running a real-time anti-spam-as-a-service solution which claims a zero false positive rate.

Interestingly, my preferred anti-spam solution here at the happygeek office is Cloudmark Desktop running in conjunction with Outlook 2007. Although I cannot claim a zero false positive rate, in the last six months I have only had cause to hunt for one missing message that had wrongly ended up in my spam folder. That out of a total of 103,597 messages received, which makes it about as close to zero as you can get without actually achieving it. Am I sure that no other genuine messages have been wrongly filtered? No. Do I check the spam folder for such messages every day, week or even month? No. Do I have confidence that my anti-spam is working properly? Yes. When I first moved to Cloudmark I used to check the spam folders every day, especially while I was training it to know who to trust, what messages were most likely to be spam and so on. That lasted for no longer than 3 weeks, after which I have been satisfied in leaving things alone and not wasting any time searching for something that doesn't exist.

Why that one message got wrongly identified is not going to cause me any lost sleep, let alone lost man hours. After all, if it was something important then the sender would get in touch after a few days to ask if I had got it, read it and replied to it. The sender did, and the mistake was uncovered. Only an idiot would assume that every email sent arrives as intended without mishap. Only an idiot would not follow up with another email (as a bare minimum) and a telephone call or fax if something were truly important. If they did not do these things then, I suggest, the communication was not actually that important after all and certainly not worth losing any man hours over...

As Editorial Director and Managing Analyst with IT Security Thing I am putting more than two decades of consulting experience into providing opinionated insight regarding the security threat landscape for IT security professionals. As an Editorial Fellow with Dennis Publishing, I bring more than two decades of writing experience across the technology industry into publications such as Alphr, IT Pro and (in good old fashioned print) PC Pro. I also write for SC Magazine UK and Infosecurity, as well as The Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Along the way I have been honoured with a Technology Journalist of the Year award, and three Information Security Journalist of the Year awards. Most humbling, though, was the Enigma Award for 'lifetime contribution to IT security journalism' bestowed on me in 2011.

A far bigger problem than email getting lost is important email getting swamped in a deluge of useless messages.

Example, a typical day at the office:
issue tracker: 20 messages
colleages, work related: 10 messages
colleages, non-work related: 5 messages
automated systems mailing to distribution lists someone put me on for some reason that I don't have any interest in: 300 messages.

The article starter has earned a lot of community kudos, and such articles offer a bounty for quality replies.