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In Search of a Spam Solution
by Reid Goldsborough

Link-Up Digital
July 1, 2008

Spam is as insidious as it is pandemic. Unsolicited commercial mass email clogs our email inboxes, the email servers of our internet service providers, and the optical fibers, coaxial cables, and copper telephone wires through which internet traffic flows.

With the current regulatory environment, there's no legislative solution on the horizon, though things could always change in the future. In the meantime, the courts have gone after high-impact spammers for years, but other spammers have just come along and taken their place. Internet service providers use filters that stop only a small percentage of spam from reaching you.

The major problem in trying to filter out spam is that you'll inevitably also filter out some legitimate email. No matter how well you train them, spam filters will remain a half step behind the wiliness of spammers, who make their money on the tiny fraction of a percentage of the millions of spam emails that are typically responded to. Newcomers or otherwise gullible people finance spam.

Still, there are steps you can take to reduce the tedium of spam and the scanning of it to find that one important legitimate email out of a hundred (or a thousand) that was mistakenly flagged.

After putting this off for far too long, I personally did an analysis of the spam I was receiving. To my surprise, I discovered that about 98% of it was coming from my first email address, one that I'd been using since 1994. I was using this address before the spam explosion, when I didn't hide or "munge" my address on various internet forums and websites.

So I'm now in the process of phasing it out, emailing contacts and asking them to replace my old address with another in their email address books and, if they have an email white list that permits email from known sources, to include my new email address there.

It was also in 1994 that the first commercial spam was sent-the infamous "Green Card" spam from lawyers Laurence A. Canter and Martha S. Siegel. It advertised the couple's immigration services to thousands of "Usenet" discussion groups, with all but a tiny fraction of these groups having nothing to do with the subject. Other spammers followed suit, and, along with Usenet, they also abused email, web forums, blogs, instant messaging (IM), and mobile phone texting.

According to the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, spam is legal in the U.S. if it has, among other things, a truthful subject line, truthful information in the technical headers, and the inclusion of the truthful postal address of the sender. Since 2003, the volume of spam has only continued to increase.

The best ways to reduce the amount of email spam you receive are listed here:

  • Never respond to spammers. If you click the "unsubscribe" link or otherwise reply to a spam email, in all likelihood your wishes will be ignored. Instead, you'll just be informing the spammer that yours is a valid email address, enabling him or her to sell your email address to other spammers. Clicking on links in a spam email can also expose you to viruses, spyware, and other "malware."
  • Disguise or "munge" your email address in internet discussion groups, blogs, and websites, including your own (if this isn't done automatically for you), to prevent spammers from harvesting it. One common method is to replace the @ sign with the word "at" spelled out and any dots or periods with the word "dot" or "period." Another technique is to create an image of your email address. A third is to use a web form for getting input or feedback.
  • Use different email addresses for different functions. With web email services such as Google's Gmail (mail.google.com), Yahoo! Mail (mail.yahoo.com), and some internet service providers that offer multiple email addresses, it's easy to use one email address for vital clients, colleagues, or friends; one for registering at shopping and other websites; one for internet discussion forums; etc. If one email address becomes a spam magnet, lose it.
  • Take advantage of spam filters. Your email program probably has one built in, or you can use third-party filters, either stand-alone programs or utilities built into suites, such as McAfee Total Protection (www.mcafee.com). Most filters let you train them to better detect both spam and legitimate email. Even if not perfect, the more you work with any given program, the more effective it will be.

With instant messaging, ignore bubbles that suddenly appear in your IM window, and ban those users who send them.




Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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