Learn to defeat spam

Spam is a modern day plague. Learn how to filter spam out of your in-box, and how to tell the difference between real email and spam

Question: I get so tired of those unsolicited ads showing up in my e-mail. What I can do to make them go away? — L.K.

Answer: E-mail is the most widely used tool on the internet, so this is an issue that affects just about anyone who has a web connection.

Part of the reason junk e-mail – also known as “spam” – is such a problem is that it’s easy and cheap to send. All a spammer needs is your e-mail address and an e-mail account of his own.

There are a couple of strategies they use. Some use offshore internet e-mail services in countries with governments that are indifferent to their activities. That means that complaining to those particular spammers’ internet service providers or their countries’ law enforcement agencies is difficult … and it rarely generates any useful results.

Some use free e-mail services like Yahoo or Hotmail to create accounts they use to send bulk e-mail, and then they just stop operations and disappear when they attract attention from the service’s staff. Some will manipulate the outbound e-mails to make it appear that the mail is coming from someone other than the sender. Often the return e-mail address is just plain non-existent.

So what can you do? There are some fairly straightforward guidelines that you can follow to minimize the volume of spam that arrives in your in-box.

First of all, never never respond to spam. That means don’t buy anything they offer, and don’t click any link in the e-mail you receive from them. If their spam doesn’t work as an advertising medium by getting you to respond, then there will be little value in their sending it.

Any time someone buys something from spam, or replies to it, or even clicks a link in it, it reinforces that spam works as a marketing tool. Another thing: When you respond in any manner, you confirm that your e-mail address is active, and that a real live person is reading mail there. You’ll almost certainly find yourself receiving more and more spam as a result, because live e-mail addresses are bought and sold among spammers.

If an e-mail message came from someone you requested information from (such as a newsletter publisher), it’s normally safe to use the “unsubscribe” instructions at the bottom of the e-mail. If you didn’t solicit the e-mail, however, chances are that the “unsubscribe” mechanism is only there to be used to get you to respond … confirming that your e-mail address is valid so it can be sold to other spammers.

If you have a website, don’t post your primary e-mail address there. Spammers have software that scan websites for e-mail addresses. They either use the e-mail addresses to send you more of their ads, or they sell the e-mail addresses they’ve found to other spammers… or both.

Don’t give your e-mail to anyone over the web. That’s hard to do, since lots of web sites encourage, or even require, you to provide your e-mail address to sign up for their services. It’s a good idea to maintain an alternate e-mail address with Hotmail.com or Yahoo.com or any of the other free e-mail services on the web, for those times when you want or have to provide an e-mail address but don’t want to give out your primary one. Remember to check the secondary address occasionally to check for valid e-mails and, if the volume of spam to that address gets to be too much, simply abandon it and get a new secondary address.

Keep your primary e-mail private. Only provide it to your close friends, family or business associates. Never post it to a newsgroup or type it into a web form.

Read the fine print. If you do post your e-mail address on the web, be picky about who you give it to. Look for privacy statements to see how the recipient of your e-mail address intends to use it.

If you want to fight back, you can. Forward a message with your spam complaint to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that hosts the spammer’s e-mail account. For example, if you received spam from [email protected], you would go to the website www.llama-boy.com and look for a “contact us” page. Often, ISPs have an e-mail account called “abuse” just for such purposes. In our example, you’d send a copy of the spam e-mail to [email protected]. You could also try [email protected] or [email protected]. Try to verify what the correct address is first if you can, so you don’t waste anyone else’s time.

It may also be that www.llama-boy.com is as much of a sham as the email
is spam – just a cover to make the whole thing look legit. Wouldn’t it be
grand if there were a foolproof 100% reliable way of knowing? Not yet,
I’m afraid. If the part of the address after the @ sign is a known entity, however, notifying them is definitely a good idea.

Reputable ISPs will investigate spammers and, if they are found to be in violation of the company’s member agreement, their accounts are shut down.

It’s often true that the spam hasn’t come from the person who appears on the “From:” field on the offending e-mail. This is called “spoofing”. That means the header of the e-mail message was manipulated to make it appear that the message was sent by someone else.

To find the real culprit, you’ll need to read and analyze the e-mail header. More information on this can be found at: spamfree.org.

In Outlook 2000, you can see the header in an e-mail message (spam or not) by opening the message and choosing the View menu, and then Options. The message header will be displayed in the internet header box at the bottom of the dialog box that pops up.

To see a header in Outlook Express 5.5, open the message, click File, then Properties, and then the Details tab.

The most useful strategy for blocking e-mail is to learn to use the e-mail filtering options in your e-mail program. A TechnologyTips column on how to use e-mail filters is available: Unwanted e-mail? Filter it out!

There are also commercial anti-spam programs available. A couple to take a look at are CA Anti-Spam 2007 and another that is plainly titled SpamKiller.

In case you’re wondering, the origin of the term “spam” for junk e-mail comes from a sketch by the British comedy troupe Monty Python. They did a bit on a restaurant that only featured dishes made with Spam, which – as you may know – is a canned ham product from Hormel. When the waitress describes items on the menu, a group of Vikings sing a song that goes something like: “Spam spam spam spam, spam spam spam spam, spam spam spam spam…”

So spam was thus named because, like the song, it is an endless repetition of worthless text. In case you’re interested, the transcript of the sketch is here: The Infamous Monty Python Spam Skit!