New email filtering system blocks millions of spam and phishing emails

Academic services at UW Bothell campus

By Ignacio Lobos

UW-IT’s help desk has been receiving some unusual queries from the UW community recently, such as, “I’m not getting any spam or phishing emails. Is there something wrong with my email?”

When someone complains about not getting spam or other suspicious email, it means something is up!

At the UW, that something is a new email filtering system from Proofpoint that has silently blocked millions of spam and phishing emails during the first three months of operation. Emails with malicious content that could have compromised the University also were stopped before they could get to their intended recipients.

UW Information Technology (UW-IT) unveiled Proofpoint in stages starting in March 2022, and immediately saw positive results. In the first month, the UW’s email systems handled 62.7 million inbound messages, and Proofpoint blocked 30 percent, or about 18.6 million, from reaching email boxes.

Another sign of success is a reduction in complaints and reports from the UW community about spam or phishing emails, with significant drops in calls for help.

“Some of our fellow Huskies have been telling us that they’re seeing considerably less or even no spam at all,’’ said James Morris, who manages the University’s email infrastructure. “We’re committed to making sure email works for you as intended, with cybersecurity among one of our top priorities. ”

Morris said that in some cases the new system has been a bit too aggressive, and his team has been busy tweaking Proofpoint to continue to reduce spam and phishing emails and to reduce instances of legitimate emails from being misclassified, and blocked, as spam. Fortunately, the new system has blocked very few legit emails.

The UW chose Proofpoint about a year ago because the previous system was no longer being supported by the vendor and was being retired. And while there are no perfect solutions that will prevent all unwanted email from getting to inboxes, Morris said the deployment of Proofpoint has allowed the University to create a significant technological barrier against malicious or time-wasting emails.

Proofpoint already operates at several major research universities, more than half of the Fortune 100 companies — including leading global banks and retailers — and major pharmaceutical companies.

More security enhancements on the way

Morris’ team is now working on a few things to enhance Proofpoint’s powerful capabilities in the coming months, including adding a tag, or written text within the body of the email, to alert recipients and to help them determine whether a given message is legitimate. They also plan to rewrite URLs in messages so that they can be scanned before they’re clicked to add further protection against malicious web content.

With the rise in cybersecurity threats, protecting email is a vital component in managing enterprise risk, one of UW-IT’s major strategic goals.

“This is a key investment for the University,” Morris said, adding that it not only protects the UW as an institution, but it also protects students, faculty and staff, and those who have retired, graduated or left the University but still forward their UW email to other email services.

“Staying ahead of spam and phishing emails is an endless job,” Morris said. “And email remains a much-used working tool for the UW community. We will continue to make enhancements so we can stay in front of the bad actors.”

 Email by the Numbers at the UW:

  • UW-IT manages more than 730,000 email addresses and forwards email to more than 7,000 email providers globally
  • UW-IT started scanning email for spam in 2002 and since then has processed more than 32 billion messages, 57.8 percent of which were spam
  • 2008 was a peak year for email volume, with more than 3.7 billion messages processed
  •  2010 was a peak year for spam, with 86 percent of 3 billion messages blocked
  • 2021 saw 14.7 percent of 1.3 billion messages blocked as spam
  • UW-IT expects to process approximately 800 million to 1 billion inbound messages for 2022; how many will be spam is yet to be determined

More Information:

UW-IT provides extensive resources and information for email. Start in IT Connect.