Anyone who has ever had their own email address knows that sooner or later unwanted messages will begin to slither into their in-box. At first, they amount to a mere few and can easily be discarded. But before long, legitimate messages are lost among a sea of junk mail. The question is, how does this happen and what can be done about it?
Most people think that spam is simply unwanted email. This isn't always the case, however. Messages must be unsolicited (unrequested) and distributed in bulk (mass emailed) to be considered spam. For example, mail sent via mailing lists or newsletters are bulk mail, but are not necessarily spam. An unexpected email from a relative, friend or colleague is also unlikely to be considered spam by most people. Its the combination that truly makes it spam.
Additionally, nearly all of us would agree that spam usually contains undesired content, which means that there is no definitive way to define spam because what is and isn't spam will vary from person to person.
But virtually everyone will agree that spam has become a very large problem. The tech industry spends millions (perhaps even billions) of dollars each year trying to deal with it. In fact, some studies have concluded that spam accounts for more than 80% of all email traffic on the Internet.
Spam has become such a problem that the federal government has enacted several pieces of legislation that are intended to penalize organizations or individuals that are generating spam (often referred to as spammers). In fact, one law requires that bulk email senders provide some sort of mechanism that allows recipients to opt-out of future mailings (typically by simply replying to the original email, or by visiting a web page that allows the recipient to remove their address from the mailing list).
Unfortunately, anti-spam laws do very little to combat the spam problem. The very nature of spam gives little heed to legalities, or privacy and respect of the recipient. Moreover, spammers are very difficult to track down. Often spam can be traced to computers that are infected with spam-relaying viruses. In simpler terms, your computer could be infected with a virus that makes your computer involuntarily send spam, so the spam is traced to you and not to the spammer. In many cases spam is sent from a series of elusive spammers who don't stay in one place long enough to get caught, relocating from one country to the next.
A solution likely exists in the technology realm. Several solutions have been proposed by companies like Microsoft and Yahoo. The problem is that in order for a solution to work successfully, it must be enacted in full across the entire Internet (made mandatory) - and not everyone in the industry is willing to adopt a solution that is encumbered by software patents, royalties or other technical or legal restrictions. So far there isn't a solution everyone agrees on. Until then, the world is going to have to get by best it can.
Spam generally starts to become a problem when your email address is recorded by one spammer and distributed throughout various spam networks. This can occur by:
1. Giving your email address out to too many people. There's nothing wrong with sharing your email address, but use some discretion when doing so (think twice about giving it to those who won't hesitate to give it out to anyone else).
2. Viruses, spy-ware and other forms of mal-ware that collect personally identifiable information, as well as address books saved on your computer. Typically this information is gathered by some sort of malicious program running in secret on your computer which transmits everything to a rogue server on the Internet. Your email address, along with all of the other addresses in your address book, are at risk of being collected.
3. Providing your email address to an illegitimate web site. I started receiving spam on one email address when a friend used a "send to a friend" link on a web page to send me a funny joke.
Once your address is on one spam list, it doesn't take long before it's spread to nearly all of them. Once you're in, its almost impossible to get out.
There are a number of things, however, that you can do to curtail spam:
1. Don't respond to messages that aren't familiar or that look questionable. If a message is from an unfamiliar or unknown sender, don't open it.
2. Many email providers tag or mark incoming mail that they believe is spam. Some will simply add "***SPAM***" to the original subject line. Others will turn on special spam flags that are buried within the email (in the header). By instructing your email program to look for these special markers (whatever they may be), you can instruct your computer what to do with potential spam (delete, move to separate folder, etc). Check with your email provider for details.
4. Consider telling friends, family, colleagues or anyone who frequently sends you personal email to send you emails directly with their email program, and not with a "send to a friend" or "email this article" links on web pages. Such site links are often used to collect email addresses which can be sold or otherwise distributed to spammers.
Most web browsers have a "send link" or "send web page" feature that copies the title of a web page into the subject line of an email, and copies the web address (otherwise known as a URL) into the body of the email for you. This is a far safer way to send a link to a website to someone else.
5. Enable special anti-spam features within your email program (if equipped). For example, Mozilla Thunderbird has an intelligent spam trainer that allows the user to dynamically "teach" or "train" Thunderbird to properly recognize spam. Messages that are recognized as spam can be deleted or moved into a "Junk" folder.
6. View your emails as plain text (when possible). Many emails contain HTML formatting (the same formatting that makes web pages display), and many email programs can read and interpret this formatting in the same way your web browser would. Links in the email that point to remote graphics (graphics located on a remote system and not stored in the email) can help spammers confirm that your address is real and valid.
7. Keep your anti-virus programs enabled and up to date.
8. Don't reply to junk mail, even if it is to opt-out of future mailings. This will simply provide confirmation to the spammer that your address is valid.
If you've done everything you can to rid yourself of spam, and you are still receiving more than you can handle, you may also want to consider a change of email address (starting with a clean, new address) and taking strong steps to prevent your new address from being exposed to spam. If this is something you are interested in, please talk to your email provider.
Author's note: In future articles in this series, we will discuss how to enable many spam features in common email programs, as well as how to take advantage of anti-spam services being provided by common email providers in the area.
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