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Stopping Spam

Protect your privacy to cut back on unwanted mail

Stopping Spam

Spam—the electronic “junk mail” that finds its way into our email inboxes every day—needs little introduction.

Anyone who has ever opened up an email, blog, IM, or social networking account has most likely received their fair share of unsolicited messages from online pharmacists, poker games, or shady bankers looking to “give” you money.

The bad news: Unless you give up using the internet altogether, spam is pretty much unavoidable. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, spam has taken its place alongside death and taxes as one of the few things that remain certain in our world.

The good news: While we may never be able to completely eradicate spam, you can significantly reduce the amount of spam you receive. Because spammers collect email addresses and personal information online, protecting your online privacy can be one of the most effective ways to cut down on spam. Read on for some common (and not-so-common)-sense ways to protect your inbox and your peace of mind.

A brief history of spam

Spam is almost as old as the internet itself. The first recorded instance of unsolicited internet messaging was an advertisement for a (now-defunct) computer supplier sent out in 1978 on ARPANET, the Defense Department network that was the predecessor of the modern internet.

The term “spam” came into colloquial use in the 1980s. Contrary to popular belief, electronic spam is not named (directly) after the canned meat product. Rather, it’s a reference to a popular sketch by the British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the sketch, a group of Vikings in a restaurant loudly chant “Spam, Spam, Spam” until all other conversations are drowned out—a humorous comparison to the way electronic trash can quickly swamp an inbox.

While the story of spam’s origins may be comical, there’s nothing funny about getting spammed by an advertiser or becoming the unwitting victim of a spam virus. Below are some practical tips for protecting your privacy and cutting back the amount of spam you receive.

Don’t give out your email address

One of the easiest ways for spammers to get hold of your email address is if you give it to them yourself. Although it may seem almost second nature to enter your email address before making a purchase at an online store, commenting on a blog, or downloading a new application, you shouldn’t give out your email address to just anyone.

Before you submit your information anywhere online, you should make sure that the site you’re visiting is reputable, and will not make your email address or personal information available to anyone else.

  • Check privacy policies on web sites and mailing lists. Trustworthy companies and listservs (mailing lists) will have a link to their privacy policy on their websites. Read through the policy to find out exactly what the web or listserv administrators plan to do with your information before you give them your email address.
  • Watch out for default options and checkboxes. When you sign up or register online for some services or products, you might be presented with check boxes that offer to send you email announcements or special offers. These options are usually pre-selected by default, so if you aren’t interested in receiving these kinds of notices, remember to uncheck them before you continue.
  • Open a separate email account. Consider getting a “dummy” or “decoy” email account from a free email service (Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail are a few) to siphon off spam from your primary account. Use this “decoy” to sign up for mailing lists, shop online, or join social networking sites. This way, if the account gets too filled with spam, you can simply delete it.

Filter your email account

Most email programs are equipped with spam filters that automatically sort out the spam from your incoming mail. However, these filters are not 100 percent foolproof. A filter can sometimes misidentify a legitimate email as spam, so you should go through your spam or trash folder every once in a while to make sure that you haven’t missed any important messages. On the other hand, the filter could be letting too much spam through.

Here are three easy tips on how to deal with the spam that’s slipped through the cracks:

  • Do not reply to spam. If you come across a message that appears to be spam, don’t respond to the email: responding allows the spammer to verify your email as a legitimate address. Instead, report the message as spam to your site administrator. (Most web-based email programs have a linked option to let you report any incoming message as spam.) 
  • Disable graphic downloads. Some spammers place trackable graphic files in their messages, which allow them to verify that you’ve received and opened their email as soon as the images begin to download on your screen. To be on the safe side, disable the automatic download of graphic files in your email program. (Most email programs disable automatic graphic downloads by default, but you should double-check to make sure that this option has been turned on.) You can always choose to “download pictures” when you receive an email from a trusted sender, but it’s best to avoid doing this if email is from someone you don’t know.
  • Don’t follow links in spam messages. If you’ve received an unsolicited email, don’t click on any of the links in the body of the message—including any links that give you the option to “unsubscribe” from messages like it in the future. This is yet another tactic that spammers use to confirm whether or not your email address is legitimate.

Protect your online privacy

Because the World Wide Web is so ever-present in our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the internet is still a very public space. As a result, you should be careful about the kind of information that you make available online. Before you post anything about yourself on the internet, decide whether it’s information that you want or need to have out in public.

  • Avoid posting your email address online. One way that spammers can pick up your email address is by using a harvesting program that hunts through web pages and picks up any email addresses it finds. If you need to have your email address available online for business or professional purposes, consider posting it in a format that’s not easily recognizable to an email harvesting program; for example: yourname-at-gmail-dot-com.
  • Monitor your online privacy settings. More and more people are using social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to keep in touch with their friends, family, or business partners. However, these sites can also share the personal information that you post with third-party programs—unless you specifically instruct them not to. If you frequent any social networking sites, periodically check to make sure your privacy settings are configured to the level of online privacy that you want; the settings sometimes can change if the site decides to reconfigure its privacy or information-sharing protocols.
  • Beware of untrustworthy applications on social networking sites. Many social networking sites offer applications you can use to take quizzes, play games, or send your friends virtual “gifts.” But you should be aware that these applications also have access to your (and your friends’) personal information. Some malicious programs will sell this information to mailing lists or advertisers, while others will go so far as to steal your login information, sign in to your account, and then spam your friends. With this in mind, be careful about downloading new applications to your account, and remove or disable any applications you don’t feel comfortable sharing your information with. Read more about social networking scams and how to avoid them.
iolo UptoSpeed

UpToSpeed™ is iolo's ongoing article series written by PC experts for everyday computer users. Each article is packed with easy tips and practical advice on the latest issues affecting computers to help you get the most out of your PC.






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