SAN FRANCISCO -- If your e-mail box is already besieged by unwanted salutations and solicitations, brace yourself -- the onslaught is about to get worse.
Driven in part by anthrax scares, analysts say, e-mail volume will likely grow 45 percent next year, up from recent annual growth rates of 40 percent.
A lot of it is junk.
How to get out from under the electronic onslaught?
Most e-mail programs -- Microsoft's Outlook and Netscape's Messenger among them -- include custom filtering features that most people don't use.
While that's a start, smarter and heavier duty e-mail management tools are also available from a handful of technology start-ups.
Some are designed to ward off one of the Internet's biggest nuisances -- the slew of marketing pitches commonly known as "spam." Others promise to help people focus on the e-mail they consider truly important.
"E-mail is the most popular application on the Internet, but it's the No. 1 frustration as well," said Tonny Yu, chief executive of Mailshell, which provides a service akin to Caller ID for e-mail.
Much of next year's e-mail volume is expected to be generated by direct-marketing companies. And that means "even more time is going to be sucked away" from people's lives dealing with spam, says Joyce Graff, an e-mail analyst for the Gartner Group technology research firm.
By some estimates, workers with e-mail accounts spend an estimated one hour per shift dealing with their incoming messages.
And that's the market for Yu's Santa Clara-based Mailshell, which lets users create different e-mail addresses tied to a single e-mail account.
For example, John Doe might use "amazon@jdoe. mailshell.com" when shopping at Amazon.com and "email@example.com" when registering at Yahoo.com. E-mail sent to those addresses would then go to Mailshell, which would automatically forward them to Doe's real e-mail box.
If Doe is sick of mail coming from a particular source, he could delete the alias from the Mailshell site without losing e-mail from other sources.
Mailshell offers a basic form of its service for free. A premium version, with more disk space and forwarding options, costs $29.95 per year.
If you don't want to go to the trouble of creating a new alias every time you sign up for an online service, several software products promise to block junk mail from reaching your main address. The top-sellers in this niche include SpamKiller and Spam Buster.
Most of the anti-spam software programs aren't 100 percent effective, though, because spam senders are constantly figuring out ways around the roadblocks.
"The software is good at blocking yesterday's spam, but not tomorrow's," said Graff.
Powerful spam filters also run the risk of blocking legitimate e-mail.
The problem stems partially from the vague definitions of spam. Some people regard all unsolicited e-mail as spam, whether it be an offer from a pornographic Web site or a chain letter passed along by a friend. Others are OK with certain unsolicited messages, such as those from charities and political organizations.
By almost any definition, though, spam is proliferating.
The spam attacks detected by Brightmail, an anti-spam service, have soared from 2,000 a day in mid-2000 to 28,000 during one day last month, said Gary Hermanson, Brightmail's chief executive. Each attack could include tens of thousands of individual e-mail targets.
San Francisco-based Brightmail makes software that is installed on e-mail gateways, including those of many major Internet service providers, to block spam and viruses.
The service draws upon existing spam databases as well as automatic sensors that remain on the lookout for new sources of spam. Graff regards Brightmail and Burlington, Mass.-based Elron Software as the most effective spam filters.
Other standalone software products are mostly prioritizers.
Incline SoftWorks, a start-up in Lake Tahoe, Nev., builds eMailBoss around Outlook's Rules. The software, which only works on Outlook, sorts incoming mail into programmable categories, including "VIP," "Friends and Family" and "Junk Mail."
The software also includes spam-blocking features and will announce aloud when e-mail arrives from specified senders. After a free 30-day trial period, the software costs $39.95.