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Cut Spam Out of Your Network's Diet

You probably wonder why e-mail providers can't simply block all spam before it gets to you. The truth is there's only so much they can do. The rest is up to you.

by Joseph Moran

It's hard to believe there was a time not all that long ago when the term "spam" actually referred to food (and with apologies to Hormel, I use that term loosely). But these days, for most of us, spam means only one thing — unsolicited (and often profane) e-mail, and lots of it.

You might be wondering why ISPs and mail providers can't simply block all spam before it gets to you, and the truth is that while they do try (and manage to intercept a lot of it), there's only so much they can do without risking that they'll fail to deliver legitimate messages. (I just received a class-action settlement check as a former customer of a major ISP that was sued several years ago for this very reason.)

Unless you're willing to forgo the use of e-mail entirely, eliminating spam from your life is next to impossible — there's just too many people sending too much of it. But this doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to help slow the seemingly endless torrent of spam directed at your inbox.

A good start is to take full advantage of your e-mail software's or Webmail provider's junk mail filtering features. Their use and effectiveness can vary (newer e-mail clients are easier to use and do a better job than the older versions), but most will allow you to mark incoming messages as junk or not junk, and the software can use this information to train itself to recognize more unwanted mail on its own over time. Most current e-mail software will also let you set up whitelists and blacklists (lists of allowed and blocked senders).

Junk mail filters are often underutilized because it may seem more expedient to just delete offending e-mails as they come in, but taking the time to flag your incoming mail will usually pay off in the long run with fewer unwanted messages making it to your inbox.

For better spam control, you can third-party anti-spam utilities are available in major Internet security suites (e.g. McAfee, Symantec, ZoneLabs) as well as in stand-alone form from a variety of vendors. This kind of anti-spam software is usually better at identifying spam than an e-mail client alone because it usually references a regularly updated database to automatically recognize characteristic key words or word combinations as well as the e-mail addresses of known sources of spam. (Many also employ various other tricks, like letting you automatically block e-mails in written in foreign languages and/or character sets-such as Cyrillic or Hebrew — which frequently turn out to be spam.)

Before purchasing a third-party anti-spam utility, you should make sure it's compatible with your e-mail setup. For example, Outlook and Outlook Express support are pretty much universal, but not all utilities work with other mail clients like Thuderbird or Eudora or integrate with all Web-based mail providers.

And although the temptation may be great to respond to frequent spammers, with a sternly worded nastygram, don't do it, because this will only verify that yours is a working e-mail address and ensure that you'll continue to be a target. Even when unsolicited e-mail contains a seemingly legitimate "click here to be removed from this mailing list" link, it may simply be a ruse to confirm the existence of a live recipient.

One kind of spam that's particularly common and troublesome is "image spam," which delivers a text message in the form of an embedded image like a JPEG or GIF file. Spam filters aren't generally able to detect and block this kind of spam very well because it contains no actual text that can be searched. Chances are that most of the spam that makes it through various filters and safeguards is of this variety.

An Ounce of Prevention

Just as you probably wouldn't give out your phone number willy-nilly, you need to be judicious in how and when you give out your e-mail address, too. Since spammers have a knack for getting their hands on it, the less you share your e-mail address with others, the better.

A good start is to use multiple e-mail addresses. For example, have a primary e-mail address that you share with friends and family but use one or more secondary addresses for everyone and everything else. It's not quite as convenient as using a single address for all your communications, but it can really cut down on the amount of daily spam you have to sift through.

When it's necessary to share an e-mail address, it pays to be careful in how you do it. Whenever you fill out an online registration form for a site/services (especially if a lesser known one you're not particularly familiar with) look closely for an indication of whether the site plans to share your address with its so-called "marketing partners" or other entities. This option is often checked by default, so it's up to you to notice it and opt out by clearing the box before submitting the form.

Finally, one of the major ways spammers get e-mail addresses is by using automated bots to gather (or screen scrape) them from around the Web in things like blogs, forums, newsgroups and so on. (After all, the @ in every address makes them pretty easy to spot.) Therefore, whenever posting your address online, alter it in such a way that a human being will be able to understand it while making it less likely to be recognized by a spammer's harvesting software (for example, joe AT isp DOT com rather than joe@isp.com).

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.


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