6 Tips for Keeping Spam at Bay

Spam and the practice of distributing it – spamming – seem to have been with us since the dawn of the internet. Spam now afflicts not just our email accounts, but social network sites and mobile telephones. Today we’re going to be looking just at email spam – although, as we’ll see, spammers get their opportunities from the full gamut of electronic media.

Let’s remind ourselves what spam is – the unauthorised, unsolicited use of an email address to deliver messages. Usually these messages are commercial in content and purpose – an attempt to sell you something. However spammers have responded to anti-spamming regulation by employing “zombie networks” consisting of “innocent” computers which have been infected with a virus that enables the spammer to use them to distribute messages by proxy, thus concealing their true source. A substantial minority of spam, therefore, comprises malware – messages whose purpose is to make use of your computer for future transmission of spam to third parties. And some spam is simply malicious vandalism. For practical purposes, it’s best to assume the worst.

Spamming is an invidious practice, in that it costs the spammer next to nothing, but costs the online community a great deal in time, effort, lost efficiency and in the cost of anti-spamming software. So good “online citizenship” demands that we minimise it, even where our own interests are not imminently threatened.

  1. So my first tip is – Never open an email attachment unless you are sure it is safe. Here’s a good example of a suspicious email I received the other day. A few clues:
    • I don’t recognise the name of the putative sender
    • The message text is in poor English
    • Yet “she” has a distinctly Anglo name
    • And look at “her” email address!

The important thing is not to go anywhere near the attachment, because that’s what contains the malware – send it straight to trash, and you’ve probably avoided your machine being recruited to a zombie network, and done your little bit to combat spam.

tips to keeping spam at bay

And, whether or not you open the attachment, don’t respond to the message itself – it just confirms to the spammers that they’ve got a live address, and they’ll sell it to every other spammer on the planet, unleashing a tsunami of spam in your direction. Still, how did “Julia Love” get my address in the first place? Well, I must have broken one of the following rules:

  1. Have both a “public” and a “private” email address. Use the private one for all your work and private correspondence, and your public address for all occasions when you have to share an address with the wider world. That includes things like newsgroups, which spammers love as a fertile source of addresses. Just accept that your public address will attract spam, and deal with it.
  2. Don’t publish your private email address on your website. It’s an open invitation to spammers, who have software that crawls around the net looking for text strings like your ”name@yourdomain” and adding it to its database of addresses to be spammed. If you want to make yourself contactable through your site, use a contact form.
  3. Never give your email address over the net unless you are quite clear as to how it will be used. Ideally, read terms of use and privacy statements before divulging your address online to a business. OK, these can be long and tedious documents, but at the very least, ask yourself if the party that is asking you for your address is the kind of enterprise that values its offline reputation enough not to risk provoking complaints about its online It’s a rough and ready guide, but for instance, an Australian High Street bank is very unlikely to want to associate itself with vexatious practices like spamming.
  4. Use a spam filter. There are no perfect filters, and some anti-spam software works better than others, but do a little Googling, read the reviews, and you’ll find it is possible to reduce the flow of spam to manageable levels. And most filter software has tools for periodically cleaning your computer of all the little cookies, adware and so on that we collect simply by surfing. Most of it is relatively benign, but occasionally it’s used maliciously, and a regular clean-out is a good idea.
  5. Never buy anything from a spammer. Leaving aside the purely malicious attacks emanating from sad little teenagers’ bedrooms, the end purpose of spam is to sell. Buying the product rewards the spammer, and encourages him to redouble his efforts. Even if you want the product on offer, find another way to buy it than by responding to the spam.

If you use these 6 tips, you should find that your spam diminishes to a trickle. My “Julia Love” email was a rarity. Oh, and Julia, if you are real, sorry about that, but you might want to brush up your English!

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