Flee-Mail: Distinguishing Genuine from Mass Emails (e.g. for Internship or Ph.D. requests)

Published by Joeran Beel on

Two student groups in my E-Business module did a great job in developing an add-on for Gmail to distinguish genuine emails from mass emails (mass email not as in “spam” but as in an email sent e.g. by a student to dozens or hundreds of professors asking for open Ph.D. positions).

Here is the project report of one of the two groups. The source code of both teams is linked at the bottom of this blog post.

Background & Problem Description

Every day, you’re bombarded with emails from people who want a piece of you and your time. But are they genuine? Maybe you’re a college professor, the founder of a start-up or a company recruiter. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell which emails you receive are genuine, and which ones have been sent to hundreds of other contacts, and not just you personally?

This is a common problem faced by many around the globe. Typically most modern email clients are good at filtering spam and unwanted marketing emails, however they often lack the capability of discerning which emails are sent with genuine intent. It’s very difficult and generally not always possible to detect whether an email has been sent to multiple others from only reading its email body. Hence, a tool is required to allow users to ‘test’ an email for its genuineness.

The Goal

The goal of the project was to provide people with a simple and easy solution to detect mass emails and to determine if the sender of an email has sent the same email to others.

The Solution

Our product Flee-Mail, is a simple yet beautiful tool that fits in snugly to your Gmail inbox. Simply install our add-on, and upon receiving an email, click on the icon to validate whether the email is genuine or not. That’s it! On a surface level, it works by checking the body of the currently opened email with a database of other emails sent from the same sender. If the email body matches the content of any other email to a certain threshold, it will classify it as a mass email.

https://youtu.be/AbEWH2nc4wE

The basis of our project requires many users to have this tool installed in their email client. However, with enough users, it would become an extremely effective tool in filtering out mass email messages. For example, if it became widely enough used by professors across universities, it would be effortless to detect students who send out mass emails looking for PhD or Masters opportunities without having a genuine interest in the college or professor.

We opted for a manual check approach of mass emails. This is because not every single email that arrives in your inbox needs to be checked. The tool should be used when the user is suspicious of an email or if the email is of a nature in which it could be a mass email – e.g. PhD applications, property viewing requests, etc. If our add-on checked automatically for each email, it would result in a LOT of junk data. For example, simple emails sent out to all the employees in a workplace by management would be flagged as a mass email when opened, which is not what we want.

Use and Install

Please note, the add-on is in development stage and not fully published. Only emails under the tcd.ie domain can install the plugin for now.

https://practical-roentgen-6e9cc1.netlify.com/howtocheck

Step 1: open an email in your Gmail inbox.
Here’s an email from a student seeking an internship opportunity. Select the Flee-Mail icon in the sidebar to activate the tool. It will automatically check the selected email and interact with our server, returning a result immediately.
Here we can see that this email appears genuine, and our tool has reported that it is not a mass email.
Here’s an example of the tool being used with a mass email that has been sent multiple times to different receivers.
As you can probably guess, our tool has reported it as a mass email. It has been received by other professors who have also checked it with our tool, registering it on our system.

Source Code and Technical Details

The source code is available on GitHub https://github.com/BeelGroup/FleeMail–EB1-1920-MassEmailDetector. For more details on the tech, please read the students’ report

An alternative implementation, by another group, is also available https://github.com/BeelGroup/EB-1920–Mass-Email-Detection-Team-3


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