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Dealing with spam mail

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Spam emails are emails that are sent without your permission (unsolicited emails). They are usually trying to sell you something or advertise sexually explicit information. Spam is a huge problem and many of the email providers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are working to find ways to combat it. This article aims to outline the information that you need to know in order to minimise spam and make sure that you receive the emails that you actually want to receive!

I haven't given my email out to anyone- why do I still get spam?

There are many ways that 'spammers' (the people who send unsolicited bulk emails of this type) harvest email addresses. A variety of automated software tools (called 'spiders' and 'bots') are used to go through websites and look for anything in an email format and store it.

Email addresses posted to web sites or in newsgroups attract the most spam. Chat rooms and discussion forums are also fertile places for spammers to obtain email addresses. Where possible it is best not to include your email in the posting, but to use the forum's facilities to contact another poster directly.

If your email address has been put on a website by the organisation that you work for, then spiders will be able to pick these up. This is commonly done by Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) who feel they are being helpful by posting the health professionals' email addresses. A good way of checking is to type your email address into Google and see where it appears. Contact all the sites the show it and ask them to remove it.

Spammers will also try to get hold of mailing lists but may not use them responsibly. If you have signed up to receive an email newsletter then you need to check the privacy policy of the website publishing it. If a website does not have a privacy policy then they may well be selling their list on to spammers.

Spammers also use a number of tricks to try and get you to enter your email addresses into websites. Never type your address into a website you do not know.

Never reply to a spam email and ask that you be removed from their mailings. This will merely validate your email address as being correct. It is better to blacklist the email address (or domain) so that it goes direct to your junk email. Reputable sites who email many people are required to have an opt out statement that allows you to stop receiving the email communications and in Europe, are legally obliged to honour all such requests.

Guidelines for dealing with spam

If you reply to spam, the spammer or the automated program on the other end will then know that your address is connected to a live person, and the spammer will then bombard you with even more spam, and circulate your address to other spammers. Thus, it is imperative that you pause and think before replying to any spam. Consider the following guidelines:

  • Setting up your email account to generate automatic responses while you are away can have the unfortunate side-effect of verifying your email address to every spammer that sends you spam while you are out of the office. So you may want to think twice about enabling this function.
  • If the message appears to come from a legitimate company, the company may have obtained your email address from some transaction between you and the company. In fact, you may have inadvertently provided your email address (for example, you didn't see the checkbox marked "don't send me product updates"). In these cases, it is usually all right to reply and ask to be removed from the mailing list.
  • If it is not a company you recognise, you will have to use your judgment as to whether you even go visit the website or not. Simply visiting the site might notify them your email address is a good one.
  • If you decide that it might be a reputable company, and you go to the website and don't see a well written privacy policy listed there, then you should not attempt to make contact or reply.
  • If the spam is clearly coming from a disreputable source, never respond. Do not follow the (probably bogus) unsubscribe directions. In most cases, if you never reply, the network of spammers will eventually decide your email address is a dud and stop using it so often.
  • Certain spam campaigns are 'crazes' and will subside after the spammers get enough replies from gullible people. Classic examples of this are the many requests that are trying to harvest bank details with bogus account validation checks, or mortgage offers, requests to participate in international money transfers for deceased people, or false charity campaigns.

Blacklisting and whitelisting

This is an important issue that can help to minimise the number of spam emails you receive. You will need to have some kind of 'spam filter' in place to do this. Many email providers now offer a spam filter and to implement this they determine whether the email senders are on your or their lists of acceptable or undesirable senders.

If certain email addresses consistently send you spam or unwanted email, you can put these email addresses in your 'blacklist'. This is a list of email addresses which will always be considered a source of spam; all email sent from these addresses will automatically be considered spam by the filter.

If there are email addresses you want to have bypass the spam filter, you can put these email addresses in your 'whitelist'. This is a list of email addresses which will always be considered a course of legitimate email; all email sent from these addresses will always be delivered normally. You may want to add your contact list to the whitelist so that these emails never get put into the spam folder.

This is also a good way to allow certain medical content senders to bypass 'porn filters', if you really do want information about breast cancer, for example!

Whitelists and blacklists are also operated at an ISP level to block all mails from certain senders or to permit bulk mail from companies that can prove that they are responsible in sending to users who request their mail, removing addresses that are invalid from their lists (as this produces unnecessary traffic for the ISPs) and in dealing prompting and correctly with unsubscribe requests.

Summary- tips to help reduce spam emails

1. Avoid purchasing products from unsolicited e-mail.
The financial rewards encourage spammers to continue spamming.

2. Never respond to any spam messages or click on links in the e-mail.

Often spammers use an 'unsubscribe' link to verify your e-mail account is valid.

3. Do not open an unsolicited message if you don't recognise the sender.

Viruses embedded in e-mails can install an application on your computer to be used by spammers or to damage your system. Many spammers now use what appear to be personal names as the sender but these are not real people. Similarly they often randomly generate titles, so the topic may look to be relevant but is not.

4. Avoid using the preview function on your e-mail software.

Often spammers can track whether a message has been viewed even if you haven't actually opened it. Outlook 2003 has a feature that blocks the download of images by default; this can help to reduce this risk.

5. Create and use more than one e-mail address.

Distribute your primary address to family and friends only or to professional colleagues as appropriate (for example your NHS email). Other addresses can be used for making purchases on-line, subscribing to e-mail newsletters, posting to newsgroups and forums, and registering for Web sites. This should reduce the volume of spam to your main account. But it is important to check all your email accounts regularly so your inboxes do not fill up, as some mail you may want to receive will then bounce. Regularly close accounts that receive mostly spam and notify any legitimate senders to these accounts of your change of email address.

6. Protect your computer.

Install spam filters and anti-virus software, or find a third-party service to filter your e-mail. If you have high-speed Internet access at home, consider purchasing and installing a firewall to prevent spammers from turning your computer into a 'zombie' system, which they can use to send out more spam.

7. Contact the ISP.

Once you've identified a spam message, report it to both your own ISP and that of the spammer. It will help yours provide better filtering capabilities, and the spammer's ISP will kick that user off its system.

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