According to recent statistics, 60% of all email is spam and another 25% are viruses. That’s 85% of this essential communication tool clogged up with wasteful and harmful messages.
Many people have only recently become introduced to spam, but in reality, it has been around since the mid ’90s – before many of us even started using email. There are conflicting stories on who actually started spam, and most of the conflict lies in the definition of the word. Therein lies a major problem in reducing or eliminating spam. Someone’s marketing material is someone else’s spam.
The closest metaphor to the spam problem lies in your mailbox at home and the junk mail we have been receiving all our lives. Is the catalog that will almost certainly be in your mailbox when you get home junk mail? It depends. If it’s from someone you want to do business with, it’s a useful catalog – if not it’s junk mail.
People have complained about junk mail as long as there has been a postal service, but what could you do about it? Ban junk mail and you won’t get that catalog you want for Christmas shopping or the pizza coupon you are going to use this weekend. The same issues exist for spam – you first have to define it.
Many companies do legitimate mass mailings of email. You may receive an email from vendors with which you do business. You quickly glance at them, decide if there is anything useful and either file or delete them. But what would happen if you suddenly decided you didn’t want one of them any more? They would immediately become spam! The email hasn’t changed, only your attitude toward it.
That’s fine, you say, but nobody wants to buy the Viagra, or get the new home mortgage, or the stock tips that clog our inboxes. Well, that’s just not true. If they weren’t making money for someone, they wouldn’t exist. Someone is buying this stuff, if even just a few people. And that’s where the metaphor with junk mail breaks down.
It costs real money to send junk mail through the postal service. There has to be a decent return on the investment to make the effort worthwhile. But millions of emails can be sent for pennies, so the risk is so low that any return is worth the investment.
What about the Can-Spam act? It’s a great effort and a reasonable direction to take. The problem is that it only affects people in this country. The majority of spam comes form the Far East, India, Europe, and Canada. And it still doesn’t do enough to define spam or have tough enough teeth behind it.
There are many answers to this. First, just as with postal junk mail, legitimate companies sell their address lists. Any time you give your email address to any company, you are taking the chance that they will sell it someone else who may in turn sell it to another party.
More often it is a less than reputable company fishing for email addresses under false pretenses. It may be a contest or drawing, a free sample or a request for information. Regardless of what the pretext is, any time you type your email address into a web page, you are saying send me all the junk mail you want to.
Also, if your email address is on a web site anywhere, say associated with your business or work, it is subject to abuse. There are computers running robotics programs out there that search through the internet looking at page after page and copying any email address they find on those sites. There are ways to foil this, but not quite as easily.
Then there are programs that simply make up email addresses. To start they have a database of company names. Then they run a program against this database, making an assumption about the domain name used (say the company is Microsoft, they will assume Microsoft.com). Then they append common names to the front of this using various combinations. Remember, it’s not costing them anything extra to send out millions of bad emails. So this machine my create email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, etc. Unless you have a very unusual name and/or company name, sooner or later one of these robots will get also. You can’t avoid these, but you can keep from making it worse if you get one.
Viruses, which are like spam but more dangerous usually get your address a different way. If someone has or runs a virus on their computer, most of them will open and read that person’s address book and start sending itself to everyone on that list. In this way, the email address looks like it comes from a friend or coworker. What should be a tip off however, is that the subject line and body of the email will usually not make sense. If you’re not expecting the email and it looks strange, delete it! If you’re not sure, call or email this person and ask if they sent it to you. Under no circumstances open an attachment unless you are absolutely sure of the sender, the file, and its purpose.
Regardless of how they get your address, there are ways to minimize the problem to a certain degree. The first line of defense is when and how you give out your address. Minimally, you should have two email addresses, one for work, and one for everything else. MSN, Yahoo, and many other websites let you create email addresses for free. Use the Yahoo or other public email address for anything that is not work related. If you never use your work email address at public websites, you will greatly reduce the risk of getting spam.
Ideally, create two or three of these public addresses. Use one at sites or for people that you really want to get email from, and you trust the site or person. The second, use for sites where you probably want their email, but don’t necessarily trust them not to sell it. Third, is an address you use when you don’t want anything from the company, and never plan on reading it if they send it. This third address, you never even go to. It can fill up with spam for all you care. The second address gets a lot of spam, but you still look at it occasionally and clean it out looking for legitimate mail. The main public address you clean daily and am very careful about when and where you use it.
As for robots that scan websites farming email addresses, they can be stopped but with more difficulty. What these programs are doing is looking for something that looks like an email address, so you have to make the email address look like something else. One way to accomplish this is to simply explain on the site how email addresses are created, if there is a standard form. For instance, state at the top of the page that all email addresses at this company are first name, last initial, followed by @company.com. Then you need only supply a list of names and a human can determine your email address where a machine cannot.
Another lesser-used method is to change the address so that even if it is harvested, it is useless. For instance, use the word at instead of @, or add a space in the address. Humans can figure it out, but machines can’t.
The bottom line in all this is, protect your email address. The more you use it and give it out, the more spam you will get.
Okay, you’ve done the best you can, but you still get spam. What can you do? First, let’s look at what not to do. Don’t reply to spam. Iit’s tempting to hit the reply button and type in some vulgar reply, but all you are doing is validating that they have reached a legitimate address. This will only flag your address for more spam.
The same goes for clicking on any link in the email, including something that will allegedly let you opt out of future emails. Think about it. If the company were that legitimate, you wouldn’t be getting the spam in the first place.
One major problem with this is setting up an out of office message when you are on vacation. If there isn’t some way of specifying who does or doesn’t get the reply, then you will increase the spam threat. This can’t be helped, but it does increase spam.
So what do you do? Simple. Just delete it. Trust me. Anything else is going to take you more time and be less effective. Want to do something anyway? Okay, we will take a brief look at filters. These are rules you set up in your email program that handle certain pieces of email. How this is done is different from system to system. We will use Outlook Express in the examples below. Your system may be different, but this should give you some guidance with which to get started.
In Outlook Express, you would click on Tools, then Message Rules. Here, you will set up the Condition, and the Action of the rule. In other words, on what mail do you run the rule, and what does it do. The bottom window is where you will give this rule a name. We’ll do a couple of simple examples. First, let’s say you get a spam from email@example.com.
Highlight the message and click on the Message menu option. The simplest thing to do would be click on the Block Sender option. The problem with this is one of the many reasons that spam filters don’t work. This email may come from firstname.lastname@example.org. The next one will come from email@example.com, and so forth. But, there is little to lose, so go ahead and click on Block Sender.
But we want to actually create a rule for this message, so open the Message menu back up and click on Create Rule From Message… This will open up a New Mail Rule window with one option already selected. In the top window, Where the From line contains people, is already checked and the sender is filled in the third window. If you checked Delete It in the second window, you will be doing the same thing as blocking the sender.
So instead, uncheck the box in the first window and check the Where the Subject line option. Notice this changes the verbiage in window three. In the second window, rather than delete it, check the option to Move it to the specified folder. We don’t want to start deleting messages until we are sure of what we are doing.
Now in the third window, we have to specify what we are moving. Click on the blue link that says, contains specific words to bring up another window. Now in the top box, type in words from the subject line of the email that would trigger it as spam. Be very specific and careful. For instance, Viagra would be a good choice. Doctor may not be unless you are sure you are never going to get a legitimate email from your doctor. Also, note that this is going to have the same problems as trying to block a sender. This rule will block Viagra, but not vi agra, or vi-agra, or any other variation. When you type in the word(s), click Add and then Okay.
Now click on the specified link. If you don’t already have one, click on New Folder and create on called junk or spam. Move all your suspected junk mail here until you are sure you aren’t getting rid of good mail. Then you can change the rule to delete it.
Notice in the top window there are many different ways to identify the mail you don’t want to see. You will need to experiment a bit to find what works best. Before clicking OK to finish the rule, drop down to the fourth box and give this rule a name, like Viagra spam. This way you can find it easy later, (under the Tools, Message Rules menu) to change or delete it.
No one knows when or if this will end. There are a lot of very smart people spending millions of dollars trying to fight spam. But there are just as many creating it, and every time a tool gets invented to fight it, another gets invented to work around that tool. The Can-Spam act is a good start, but it isn’t global enough or tough enough.
Meanwhile, you can all do your part to prevent the spread of spam as much as possible. Protect your email address to protect your sanity. Don’t reply to spam and never click on a link inside of a spam email. If everyone does their part, maybe we can put spam back on the shelf where it belongs.