Do you hate spam as much as I do? I am not talking about the canned Spam mystery meat by Hormel, although I don’t like eating that. Today, I am talking about the junk mail that floods your email inbox. Often these emails are called unsolicited commercial email (UCE), but I just call them “spam.” The actual invention of this term for junk emails is lost, but Internet folklore claims the name came from the Monty Python skit of a diner selling dishes like “spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam and spam.” Regardless of where the term comes from, or even if you like spam, the basic fact is that we get too much in our email.
You may not like the junk mail delivered by the postman, but in its defense, someone had to pay to mail that stuff. Not so with spam. Often spammers will sign up for a free email account and quickly send out hundreds, if not thousands, of messages advertising Viagra, get-rich-quick schemes, porn, even software to get rid of spam. According to BrightMail, a company with anti-spam server products, spam is now accounting for 50% of all email passing through their servers, up from 38% this time last year. And projected trends indicate that this will only get worse.
So what can you do to avoid spam? One way is to avoid email completely, but that solution is becoming more unacceptable as people become more accustomed to sending and receiving email as a quick way to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. If you are unwilling to do without email, consider getting multiple email addresses. This way you may use one email address for public use, and another just for friends and family. I do this myself. Whenever a website requires an email address, I normally give it a fake one like email@example.com, a silly reference to Mystery Science Theater 3000. If the email must be valid because the site will send me a registration code or something similar, then I use a disposable account created just for this purpose. Once that email account starts to get too much spam, I can delete it and create a new one. This works great.
But what can you do if you start getting email spam in your primary inbox? If you are not tied to that email name for some reason, consider getting a new one. The main drawback to switching email accounts like this is the real possibility that your friends or family might not be alerted about the change and lose contact with you. Most people do not have this option, so they must use some other avenue of attack to get rid of spam messages.
First, let’s look at prevention. Never give out your private email address to any web site. Do not use your private email address for mailing lists or anything that you believe may be disseminated to the public. Spammers have to find your email name somehow, so do not make their task easier by carelessly tossing your email address out there. It is also very possible for spammers to harvest your email name if you reply to or forward on those urban legends, funny jokes, inspiring stories, or other emails that get circulated constantly. If an unscrupulous person gets his hands on one forwarded email, he can harvest dozens if not hundreds of valid email addresses from it. Once one spammer has your email address, he will gladly sell it to other spammers.
Many spam emails have a link at the bottom which asks you to reply in a certain way or to a certain address to be removed from their mailing list. Don’t do this. If you reply to a spammer, you have just proven that there is a live person reading your email, so you will receive even more spam. If, on the other hand, you have signed up on a valid email list like Kim Komando’s, then unsubscribing should work fine. This is the difference between a legitimate email which you no longer wish to receive and unsolicited garbage.
The second avenue of attack on spam is identifying and blocking it. Many good Internet services either offer a server-based program to identify and block spam before it reaches you, or software to run on your system to identify spam. I am using Spam Inspector,
iHateSpam, or Stop Sign. The first three have free trials, but Stop Sign is completely free. Other than GFI MailEssentials, I have not used these, so you are on your own. Feel free to drop me some mail if you like or dislike any of the others.
The primary problem with identifying and blocking spam on your server or machine is false positives. You do not want valid, legitimate email being destroyed or delayed because it was falsely identified as spam. There is a fine line that spam-filtering software must walk: even one false positive will make the user wonder if running the spam blocker is worth missing that important message, but if the software is too lax, many more spam messages will get through. Neither is desirable, but one or the other is bound to happen. On my system, I move all identified spams into their own area; then I review them several times a day. I find that I am catching between 0 and 2 false positives per day. But as I catch them, I am able to alter my spam-catching rules to filter the email better. Regardless of the spam-catching software you choose, you will want to verify that what has been labeled spam truly is spam.
In closing, let me explain why you do not have spam filtering built into Microsoft’s Outlook Express email software. Microsoft was working on a spam filter in Outlook Express that would analyze the words in each email and make a judgment on the likelihood that it was spam. The best part of this planned feature was the quick way the user could progressively “teach” the program to discern spam from legitimate email with a simple click. During the beta test, a period when software is semi-publicly tested to see how well it works before its official release, this spam filter incorrectly identified cards sent by Blue Mountain as spam. This problem was investigated, determined to be a bug in the software, and it was fixed. This is precisely what the beta testing process is supposed to accomplish. But Blue Mountain got wind of this bug and angrily sued Microsoft for falsely identifying their electronic greeting cards as spam. The judge ruled in Blue Mountain’s favor and ordered Microsoft not to include the spam filter in the final release of the software. So if you use Outlook Express, you may thank Blue Mountain for your lack of a good built-in spam filter. This is why I refuse to send any greeting cards from Blue Mountain.