Junk e-mail (spam) prevention tips

One of the most common questions we hear from customers is how to reduce the amount of junk e-mail or “spam”. In this article I answer why you get spam, how to avoid getting it in the first place, and how to manage the spam you already get.

Why do get spam?

Do you recall when you first got your e-mail address – you probably got little or no spam. The longer you have an address the more likely you are to get spam – and the amount increases over time as your address gets stored on in an increasing amount of people’s address books, databases and in other computers. If one of those computers gets an e-mail virus or spambot or if an e-mail database is hacked, you’re going to get spam. Also if you post your e-mail address on a website, computers that search the internet looking for e-mail addresses will add your address to its list of active e-mail addresses, and you’ll get spam.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game as the e-mail providers tune their spam filters to recognize the words and patterns that junk e-mail usually contains, while the spammers are devising new methods to not be detected by the filters. New methods that the spammers are using include:

  • Putting an image of the text of the message that can’t easily be read by the spam filter computers
  • Forging the senders e-mail address so the e-mail looks like it’s coming from someone you know, or even yourself – since most people open mail from people that they know
  • Hacking e-mail address databases on insecure web sites
  • Sending out “urgent” e-mails pretending to be from a business that you would normally trust, asking you to e-mail back your e-mail account login information
  • Sending a flood of e-mail messages so that the spam filters can’t keep up with the volume of e-mail to scan – thereby the spam filtering is temporarily turned off so that legitimate e-mail doesn’t get delayed
  • For detailed examples of some of the above methods see How to Prevent your Internet Accounts from Being Hacked.

Can all junk e-mail be stopped without changing to a new e-mail address?

No, but most of it can be blocked from reaching your “Inbox” e-mail folder. Most major e-mail providers do a good job of detecting messages that are junk and automatically filtering those messages into a “Spam” or “Junk” folder. There are other paid services and programs that allow you to create whitelists and blacklists that will allow or block e-mail addresses which you define, plus other more thorough filtering techniques. But unfortunately no service is 100% perfect.

Methods to reduce the amount of  junk e-mail that you receive

Use multiple e-mail addresses

It’s a good idea to use at least 2 different e-mail addresses. Use one e-mail address for correspondence with close friends and family. Use a second one to give to businesses or when you purchase things online that you don’t need to check as often.

I recommend that one of your e-mail addresses be a Gmail address, since it tends to have the best no-cost spam filtering.

Use disposable addresses/alias or consider getting your own domain name

Some internet and e-mail service providers offer disposable/alias e-mail addresses, that let you create a different e-mail address for different purposes. For example, you could create a disposable e-mail address of “joesmith-abccompany@domain.com” that you give to ABC company, an online merchant that you buy from. If you start receiving junk e-mail at that address from other companies, you could delete the address or filter it to the trash – and you would know that ABC company is giving out your e-mail address or that their database was hacked. You could create different disposable addresses for every company that you do business with and every e-mail newsletter that you subscribe to. The three major email providers offer disposable/alias email addresses: Yahoo’s AddressGuard, Gmail’s + alias and Hotmail aliases.

For personal correspondence you could create a disposable/alias e-mail address that includes the current year such as “joesmith-2012@domain.com” which you could change on a yearly basis. In this example, if you start getting junk e-mail at that address by the end of 2012, you would create a new e-mail address for 2013 and delete/filter all mail from the previous years address. You could notify your freinds and family of the e-mail address pattern based on year, but automated spam wouldn’t likely figure out your system.

You can also get your own domain name such as “joesmith.com”, in which you could use a “catch-all” to have email addressed to any address delivered to your Inbox. Examples of addresses you could give out include: “abccompany@joesmith.com”, “ebay@joesmith.com”, “groupon@joesmith.com”, “facebook@joesmith.com” and “2012@joesmith.com”, which you could filter to your Inbox, sub-folders, or into the trash if spam is getting sent to a certain address.

A Computer Techs professional can help set this up disposable addresses, or e-mail addresses with your own domain name.

What you can do to prevent the spreading of spam…

Do not respond to junk e-mail – just delete it

Replying to junk e-mail lets the spammer know that they have sent their message to a real, working e-mail address – and that you actually read their message. At that point Spammers may sell your e-mail address to other Spammers as part of a list of active e-mail addresses – thus making you a target for more junk e-mail. Blocking the e-mail is ineffective since most spam comes from a random, one-time e-mail addresses. Just delete it.

Spammers often use unsubscribe links in emails to track people that take the time to open email and click the “unsubscribe” link, then send more spam.

You should only unsubscribe from emails that you are absolutely sure that they came from a legitimate company. Some methods that you can use to help identify legitimately sent emails include:

  • Have you knowingly given the sending company your email address?
  • Look to see if the “from” email address matches closely to the company that it says it came from.
  • Does the grammar and punctuation in the email look as if it was professionally written?

Use BCC when sending e-mail to a group of people

Some junk e-mail is spread when a computer gets infected by a virus or spyware that also installs a spambot on the infected computer. The spambot collects all the e-mail addresses on the computer, then sends spam to all the e-mail addresses it finds, or sends a list of the valid e-mail addresses to unscrupulous businesses that sell valid e-mail addresses to third parties for the purpose of advertising.

To avoid the spread of Spam it is good e-mail safety and etiquette to use “BCC” (Blind Carbon Copy) when sending e-mail out to more than one person. That way the person receiving your e-mail can’t see the e-mail addresses of everyone else you’ve sent your e-mail to. More importantly, spambots can’t see the other e-mail addresses either.

For example, if you use BCC and one of your friends got a spambot, the spambot could only see your e-mail address in a message on their computer, and only send spam to you. But if you didn’t use BCC, and put all of your contacts in the “To:” or “Cc:” column, then the spambot could send it out to you AND ALL OF YOUR OTHER FRIENDS!

The Outlook Express screenshots above show how to select e-mail addresses on the left and putting them in the “Bcc:” field on the right. To view the “Bcc:” field in Outlook Express in a new message window, select “Show Headers” from the View menu.

Other e-mail programs, as well as AOL, Yahoo, GMail and other webmail services have a way to disguise all of the e-mail addresses you send a message to via “BCC”. Please check how to use BCC with your e-mail, and start practicing safe e-mailing today.

Use descriptive subject lines… and tell your friends

When you send an e-mail it is very helpful to the person receiving the e-mail if you give a very specific subject so that they know the e-mail is legitimately from you. A subject of “Attached pictures of baby Ryan Smith born 7/1/03” is an example of a good, very specific subject line. Try to include names or specific information that the receiver would know that it’s safe to open your e-mail. A subject of “hi” is too vague – some spammers use vague subject lines to get you to open their message.

Let Computer Techs come up with a personalized junk e-mail solution for you

Good junk e-mail filtering and/or e-mail address management can potentially save you hours of time each week spent sifting through your e-mail deciding which is good and which is junk. Computer Techs can evaluate your personal junk e-mail situation and provide a solution based on your needs.

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