This week Roy Walker, chief executive officer of Advascan, offers advice and tips for spam-proofing your inbox.
Newspapers are writing about it, pressure groups are moaning about it, politicians may hold forums to discuss it and governments may even pass bills to outlaw it. But will any of this help stem the rising tide of spam? No.
Spammers are still making a lot of money because, one way or another, about 30 per cent of people are still confirming their existence to them.
Moving from country to country, spammers exploit weaknesses in the security of email infrastructure to inject spam. A large percentage of what is sent is outside the law already, so legislation cannot stop it, just as legislation cannot stop robbery, car theft, or any other criminal activity motivated by money.
Spam has become more than a nuisance. In a 50-person organisation, for example, it can take an average employee approximately one minute per day to deal with his or her spam. Over one year this equates to 25 days in lost productivity across a company.
Every company needs to look at ways to combat this problem. So what can you do to reduce the amount of spam? The following simple steps could make your inbox much less crowded.
The number one rule is never, ever, respond to spam. Responding simply confirms to the spammers that the email address they have used is 'live'. Don't believe that they will remove you from the list like they promise.
Even if you think you are not responding to spam, you might be anyway. Many email programs have an option to automatically reply to the sender's request for a notification that an email has been delivered or viewed on screen (sometimes called 'read receipt' or 'confirm read').
If your email client has this feature (in Outlook it is under Tools/Options/Preferences/Email Options/Tracking Options), then switch it off.
See all those graphic images in your spam email? Well, often they did not arrive in the original message but were downloaded automatically when you viewed it. The download request to the server is uniquely identifiable to the spammer and tells him that your email address is live.
Many email programs have the option to switch off image viewing as the default. If yours has that option, select it. In some clients, the alternative option is to close the Preview Pane so you do not automatically see the content of the email just by highlighting it in the inbox list.
Newsgroups (aka Usenet) are an important source of active email addresses for spammers. Harvesting software scans all groups and grabs the addresses of posters. If you post a message on a newsgroup using your real address, you can be sure that you will get spam.
One countermeasure is 'munging' your email address. This involves mutilating your email address so that it cannot be automatically read by harvesting software, but can still be deduced by a real person who legitimately wants to respond to your posting.
For example, '[email protected]' becomes '[email protected]'. This of course invalidates the 'Reply To' address in your posting, which is why it must be possible for a human reader to work out what your address actually is. Many people put a signature on their posted messages advising how to de-mung their address.
Munging does not mean making yourself anonymous, but if you want to post anonymously to newsgroups there are online sites through which you can do just that. When you mung your address, don't just make up any domain, because it might already exist and someone else will get the spam.
Also, mung after the '@' to make the domain invalid. Be creative when you mung; harvesting software is getting smarter.
Spammers also use software to search the web for email addresses posted on websites. If you post your email address in plain text on your website, it is only a matter of time before this software finds it.
Spam is a massive problem, but not an insurmountable one. By avoiding some of the most common errors you can take action to reduce the effects of spam without compromising the integrity of your mail system.
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