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Keeping Your Inbox Clear of Junk

written by: Steve McFarlane•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/23/2011

Handling the mass of useless messages that are sent to our inboxes can waste valuable time and financial resources. In this article we look at some ways to keep the trash at bay.

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    Emailing has become an efficient and convenient way to communicate, but with the rise of spamming, many are seeking ways to regain control of their inboxes. Spam email, which is also known as bulk email or junk email, is any unsolicited email that tries to sell the recipient on a product, service or otherwise tries to get them to take some action that would benefit the spammer.

    The most widely recognized form of spam is, e-mail spam. However, the term also applies to similar abuses in other media such as: instant messaging spam, blog spam, wiki spam, online classified ads spam, Usenet newsgroup spam, web search engine spam, mobile phone messaging spam, Internet forum spam, junk fax transmissions, social networking spam, and file sharing network spam.

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    How Do They Get Your Email Addresses?

    Spammers use various methods to get email addresses, but people generally start receiving spam email once they: post a message on a newsgroup; give their address to an online retailer; sign up for a product or service online; e-mail a spammer asking them to remove their address from their mailing list, or place their e-mail address on a website. There are other methods that mass mailers use but most methods can be thwarted with a little know-how. We will stop receiving spam email, if we follow these simple tips that follow.

    Dictionary Attacks

    The dictionary attack method uses software to generate new email addresses, by guessing the first part of the address and appending it to the domain name of a popular email service provider. For example, a dictionary attack will easily guess rickallen@gmail and

    Placing underscores in your email address will slow down all but the most sophisticated email address generators. Protect yourself by using hard to guess email addresses, or include numbers and special characters in your address. It is unlikely that an email generator will guess an address like,

    Third Party Lists

    Spammers often purchase email addresses in bulk from a third party. They will then extensively market to the new email addresses, or sell them to someone else. These lists are compiled by email merchants, from different sources, and resold. Interestingly, most of the addresses on these lists are actually surrendered by account holders, who freely give up their contact details in exchange for the promise of a product, service or information.

    If you are asked to submit your email address, make sure you are giving it to a reputable company or individual. Even so, read their privacy policy to see if they will make your contact details available to third parties. Uncheck any box that gives them the right to share, or sell your contact information to a third party.

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    Make Things Difficult for Mass Mailers

    Think twice before you start, or forward chain letters or petitions. Every time you do so, you expose all the email addresses in the “to" and “Cc" fields to be harvested by spambots. Instead, use the Bcc email field, if your recipients don’t need to see the other email addresses. None of those you send those chain letters to may be spammers themselves, but in the event that their computer is hijacked, all the contacts in their address book will be vulnerable.

    If you are asked for your email address, consider whether the entity that asked for it really needs it, and whether you trust them with this important contact detail. You can setup a free email account and use it to sign up for products and services online; reserve your primary email address for your trusted friends and associates.

    You can always misspell your address when you register online. Of course this only works if the site doesn’t insist on sending you a confirmation email, or important information to this address. In any case, you should do all you can to keep your contact details off mass-mailers lists.

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    Thwart Email Harvesters/Spambots

    Some spammers use email harvesters (spambots) to scan web pages for email addresses. Common targets for email harvesters are message boards, forums and social networking websites. The harvesters identify email addresses as text that has the “@" symbol followed by a “.com."

    If you must put your email address on a blog or forum, you can thwart email harvesters by writing addresses without the “@" symbol, or you can try munging the e-mail address. Munging means that the email address is displayed in a form that is easily read by humans, but not by spambots. An example of this would be to display your email address as a graphic. The other option would be leaving out the “@" symbol. For example, “rick[AT]" You can then instruct people, who want to e-mail you, to replace [AT] with the @ sign.

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    Use a Filter

    Most spam filters work by blocking emails that appear on the spam blacklist that they maintain. There are some free spam filters, but you might want to consider paying for a good service, if the number of spam you are receiving is getting out of hand. Some popular spam filters include: SpamEater Pro, SpamFighter, ChoiceMailOne and MailWasher Pro.

    You can also block spam by using the spam filter tool that many popular free email services offer. To take it one step further, you can view the header of the spam email, to determine the domain/service provider the spam email came from and make a complaint to the spammer’s service provider. Most email service providers don’t require much complaining to block or cancel the account of an offender.

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    Never Reply

    The only way that mass-mailers can verify that your email address is active is when you respond to their spam, or when you open an email that has embedded elements. Spammers can verify that your email address is active by including (in the body of the email) a link to images that is hosted on their servers. When you open or preview the mail, your email program will access their servers to display the image, once the spammer sees that the image is accessed, they know your email address is active.

    Another trick that is commonly used is that of including a UNSUBSCRIBE button in the spam message. If you click this link, you won’t be taken off the mailing list, but instead you would have confirmed your email address as being active and ready to receive more junk. Never reply to spam, just delete them.

    There is another reason you shouldn’t respond to a spam message. Some spammers will forge the spam email address they are sending from to appear as if the spam email is coming from someone else. Often they accomplish this by hijacking some else’s account. If you respond to the spam email, the original account holder will get your email. They, on the other hand, may flag your email as junk, which now makes you a spammer. Some mass-mailers may not go so far, instead, they just setup an account to receive responses, and just ignore that account.

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    How to Report Spam

    So what recourse do you have if you can’t force spammers to stop sending you junk? There is US legislation covering spam emails. It is known as the CAN-SPAM ACT (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act). You can report SPAM emails by forwarding a copy to For more information on the CAN-SPAM ACT, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.

    If you have a stomach for litigation, you can actual make money from spammers. The CAN-SPAM ACT allows for offenders to be fined a minimum of $500 per offence. The catch is that the offender must have sent the email from within an area that is under the jurisdiction of this law.

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    Spamming will remain economically viable as long as advertisers have low operating costs, and people keeping keep responding favorably to their email campaigns. Even with the requisite legislations, it is difficult to hold spammers or their Internet service providers accountable for mass mails.

    We will stop receiving spam email if we play our part in ensuring that spammers don’t make a profit. Never buy anything from an unsolicited email, no matter how good the offer looks, because you are only ensuring that you, and others, will get even more spam in the future.