How to avoid unwanted e-mail

Question: I get so tired of those unsolicited ads arriving in e-mail. What can I do to make them go away?

Answer: E-mail is the most widely used tool on the Internet. So this is an issue that affects almost everyone 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.

There are a couple of strategies that they use. Some use offshore Internet e-mail services in countries with governments that are indifferent to their activities. So complaining to their Internet Service Provider or law enforcement agencies is difficult and rarely generates any useful results.

Some use the free e-mail services such as Yahoo or Hotmail to create accounts that they send bulk e-mail from and then disappear when they attract attention from the service’s staff. Or they 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 does not exist.

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

First of all, never respond to spam. That means don’t buy anything they offer and don’t click through to any link in the text of the e-mail you receive from them. If spam doesn’t work as an advertising medium, there will be little value in doing it. When you buy or respond to spam, you reinforce that spam works as a marketing tool. When you respond in any manner, you confirm that your e-mail address is active. You may suddenly find yourself receiving even more spam as a result.

If the e-mail message came from someone whom you solicited information from (such as a newsletter publisher), then it’s normally safe to use the “unsubscribe” instructions at the bottom of the e-mail. If you didn’t solicit the e-mail, chances are that thy will use the unsubscribe mechanism to confirm that your e-mail address is valid so they can sell it to other spammers.

If you have a web site, don’t post your primary e-mail address to it. Spammers have software that scans web sites for e-mail addresses. Then they either use the e-mail addresses to send you their promotions or sell the e-mail addresses to other spammers.

Don’t give your e-mail to anyone on the Web. That’s hard to do as lots of web sites encourage you to share your address to sign up for services. It’s a good idea to maintain an alternate e-mail address with or or any of the other free e-mail services on the web. Check the secondary address occasionally to see if there’s new valid e-mail. If the volume of spam to that address gets too high, 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 to the web, be picky about whom 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], then go to the web site and look for a “contact us” page. Often, ISPs have an e-mail account called “abuse” for such purposes. In the example above, you’d send a copy of the spam to [email protected]. You could also try [email protected] or [email protected]. Try to verify what the correct address is first so you don’t waste anyone else’s time.

Reputable ISPs will investigate spammers and if they are found to be contravening the company’s member agreement, they 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. Often, this is spoofed. That means the header of the e-mail message was manipulated to change the appearance of where the e-mail came from.

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

In Outlook 2000, you can see the header by opening the spam e-mail message and choosing the “View” menu and then “Options”. The message header will appear 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” and then “Properties” and then the “Details” tab.

The most useful strategy to block e-mail is to learn to use the e-mail filtering options in your e-mail program. A column on how to use filters is available at: How to use e-mail filters.

In case you’re wondering, the origin of the term “spam” 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 sings 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.

If this column still doesn’t fully help you with your tech problems or answer questions that you may have, you should see our Emergency Help page for personalized help.