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Fry Up Some Spam: Tips To Alleviate The Nightmare That Is Your Inbox

Apr 23, 2008
I'm sure you've read that Spam accounts for roughly 90-95% of all email. If you haven't read this, read the previous sentence again because it's a fact according to Barracuda Networks. Only 5-10% of the email that reaches the average inbox is supposed to be there. This isn't good from an identity theft perspective considering spammers aren't the most ethical bunch.

Sure, email has its upsides. How did we ever live without the occasional crude joke from a well-meaning brother-in-law or "friendly reminders" from the phone company that our bill is twelve seconds passed due? Unfortunately, those upsides come with the aforementioned bad sides: Spammers love clogging your inbox with offers to increase certain parts of your anatomy and decrease others. It's just so darn cost-effective for them compared to buying stamps and annoying you the old-fashioned way.

Just What Exactly Counts as Spam Anyway?

There are two basic types of spam:

(1) nuisance emails - these are the most abundant, your typical run-of-the-mill offers for cheap blue pills, sultry ladies of the night waiting just for you, and various other things that are just too good to be true.

(2) malicious emails - As a writer of an identity theft blog, these are of most concern to me. These spamtastic little devils are out for one thing and one thing only: to deceive you out of your money or your personal information. One common malicious email type is know as a phishing attack. This is when a spammer disguises his email as though it came from a credible source, such as a common store, website, or financial institution.

Not only can spam be dangerous, but it can cause you to miss emails you actually wanted to read. How many times have you accidentally deleted an email only to realize later that it was from a trusted source? How many times have you not received a wanted email because your spam filter acted liked an overprotective mother?

How Did Those Unscrupulous Yahoos Find My Email Address Anyway?

Honestly? You gave it to them. Well, maybe not directly. Did you fill out a form online? Did you post to a forum? Did you sign up for a mailing list of some sort? Spammers search the Internet for such address, typically using harvesting software to do it form them (spammers are tremendously lazy...that's why they are spammers).

Of course, some websites sell your information to third parties who, in turn, sell your information to fourth parties and so on until it gets into the hands of a spammer.

I Pay My Taxes! Why Hasn't Uncle Sam Put an End to These Shenanigans?!

Easy there, big fella. The Federal Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM, clever, no?) requires unsolicited commercial e-mail messages to be labeled and to provide instructions on how the recipient can opt-out. The law also requires the spammer to provide its physical address and discontinue the use of deceptive subject lines and false headers on the messages.

Here's something nifty: if you receive a piece of spam that doesn't comply with the laws, just forward it to spam@uce.gov to unleash the full, unbridled fury of the Federal government upon the poor, unsuspecting spammer. Well, "unbridled fury" might be a bit of an overstatement, but the email will at least be logged and used to help track down spammers. I setup a folder in my inbox to automatically forward any email placed in it to the government email address. That way it's just as easy to report spam as it is to delete it.

That's Great but What Can I Do?

Your ISP or email host is already working behind the scenes to screen out a great deal of spam sent your way. Further, a properly setup spam filter is keeping another layer of spam from hitting your inbox. Of course, if this was enough you would have to clean out your inbox every morning.

Here are a few ideas to clean up the clutter:

1. Don't open it. Don't you dare open an email unless you know the sender. There could be malicious code in there. There could also be a graphic that contains a script that alerts the spammer that you opened the email. This tells them that the address is good. You are now about to get hit with a spamvalanche (if you didn't catch my poor attempt at humor, that's an avalanche of spam).

2. Don't click the link! That link could call some seriously nasty code or alert the spammer of the validity of your address. Neither are good. (This won't be an issue if you heed #1.)

3. Don't Automatically Delete Your Junk Folder. If you use filtering software, be sure the rejected messages are sent to a special folder other than your email "trash" basket. Your overprotective spam filter might mistake Uncle Bill's chili recipe email for spam. You know you're dying to know what the secret ingredient is. (It's chocolate, by the way.)

4. Have a backup e-mail account(s). Use throw-away email accounts from Hotmail, Yahoo or http://Inbox.com (great free email account!) for everything other than family, friends and your most trusted consumer and business contacts. You'll still get spam, but it won't be in your primary account.

5. Make your email address unique. Again, spammers are lazy. They will bombard servers with combinations of common words and names. Numbers and symbols trip them up.

6. Don't email the spammer to give him a piece of your mind. Again, this just tells him you exist. Further, don't give out any of your information in any way in any medium to a spammer. Don't call a phone number in the email, nor leave information on a website linked in the email.

7. Consider using disposable online addresses. This goes a step further than #4. Setup separate email addresses for each individual newsletter or service and forward all mail from those addresses to your main account. Just suspend the use of any address that starts receiving spam and abandon it. Better yet, try out http://www.gishpuppy.com. (A free service which I am in no way related.)

8. Remove e-mail addresses from your Web site. If you list or link to your email address, you are likely to be spammed by address-harvesting robots. If you must include your e-mail address on the site, try posting it written out in words ("example at domain dot com") instead of example@domain.com. That way a human user can understand the correct address, but a robot may not recognize it as such.

9. Report spammers to their domain. Most e-mail accounts have an anti-spam requirement in their terms of service. For example, here is Yahoo's Anti-Spam Policy: http://docs.yahoo.com/info/guidelines/spam.html

Completely defeating spam is a difficult task without breaching the freedom allowed by the Internet. Policing spam too drastically could make it increasingly difficult to receive non-spam email. Realistically it is up to the individual to take responsibility. Spam would die a quick death if it wasn't profitable. Don't allow yourself to be a part of the problem by instigating spammers with uninformed actions.
About the Author
As a former identity theft victim, Dan Riffle writes extensively about identity theft issues at http://www.identitytheftinsider.com Find out what he believes to be the worst kind of spam by clicking HERE
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