May 20, 2014 • Jessica Jones
If you have email, you get spam. As aggravating as it is, it comes with the territory, just like all the meaningless glossy fliers and coupons that get stuffed into your physical mailbox come with the territory of having an address. How does your email address get onto spammers’ lists? And, more importantly, what can you do to cut down the amount of spam that shows up in your inbox? Let’s talk … about spam.
There are numerous ways that spammers could get your email address. Unless you keep your email address exceptionally private and never use it to create online accounts, make online purchases, post in online forums, or do just about anything other than communicating with family and friends, eventually you’re going to get some spam. Even if you do guard your email address like the crown jewels, if a friends’ email gets hacked, the contents of their contacts list could be harvested, and boom, spam.
While exercising a bit of caution about giving out your email address can go a long way towards cutting down on the lists you end up on, putting your email address on lockdown probably isn’t going to be worth the trouble or restriction. Here are a few basic guidelines for avoiding some pitfalls without going overboard.
Be cautious about subscribing to email lists. Mailing lists that are well run by ethical companies and organizations are nothing to worry about. A good mailing list will allow you to unsubscribe anytime you choose and won’t disclose your email address to anyone else. A disreputable mailing list may exist only for the purpose of harvesting your email address for spammers. If you aren’t certain you trust whoever is running the list, or if the offer to join the list appears too solicitous (are they offering you something of value for free just for signing up?) then you may want to pass it by.
Be cautious about unsubscribing from unfamiliar email lists. Likewise, if you find yourself receiving email from a list that you never actually signed up for, you may not want to attempt to unsubscribe from it. While clicking the “unsubscribe” link seems intuitive and is exactly what you’d want to do in order to unsubscribe from a reputable list, if the list is disreputable and collected your email address in a dishonest way to begin with, the “unsubscribe” link may just funnel you into ad-laden sites that could end up generating more spam or worse, infect your computer with malware. If the email directs you to reply to it in order to unsubscribe, doing so may only confirm to them that your email address is valid and result in yet more spam. If the email doesn’t seem legitimate, don’t click any links it offers or follow any instructions it gives - mark it as spam and delete it!
Don’t interact with spam at all. On a similar note, if you receive any kind of spam email, interacting with it on any level - replying, clicking links, etc. - is a bad idea. Doing so will likely result in more spam or malware infections. Mark it as spam and delete it!
Read the checkbox items. Sometimes when you fill out a form requesting your email address there will be an opt-in checkbox asking if you would like to receive offers from other companies. This checkbox will generally be checked by default, requiring you to uncheck it in order to opt out. If you don’t, the company you’re supplying with your email address to will probably take that as license to sell your information, and who knows who they might sell it to.
Don’t purchase online from companies you don’t trust. This is obviously important advice for more reasons than just spam prevention. If you don’t feel confident that a company is reputable, you don’t want them to have your email address, let alone your credit card number!
If you have a form on your website that users can fill out in order to send you a message, that form is likely to be targeted by spammers, who may use it to send you solicitations, links, or other information unrelated to your site. Sometimes, in a sneakier ploy, the message will seem like a legitimate entry, but responding to it by email will only result in the spammer capturing your now-verified-as-valid email address. A good way to cut down on this is to install a captcha, one of the challenge boxes you’ve no doubt encountered where the user is asked to re-type a series of letters or words that appear in an image, thus proving him or herself to be human rather than a spambot. While there are ways for spambots to defeat captchas, the majority of spammers aren’t going to put that much effort into it when there are so many forms out there without captchas installed. Setting one up will drastically reduce the amount of spam responses you receive.
Likewise, if you have a blog that allows users to leave comments, the “Leave a Comment” form may also be targeted. If your site is built on WordPress, an excellent tool for combatting these responses is a plugin called Akismet. Akismet will filter out the spam comments so that you only see the legitimate entries. Occasionally one will slip by, but overall Akismet’s filters are very accurate.
Now you’ve got some information about how spam gets directed to your inbox and how to cut down on it in the future. Unfortunately, though, some spam is going to happen even if you follow all of these tips. What are the best tools and tips for filtering it out of your inbox? Check in next week for a post about how to thwart the spam that, despite your best efforts, continues to get directed to your email address.