Dealing with spam
It clogs up your inbox offering everything from penis enlargement to Rolex watches and makes it increasingly difficult to find the emails you actually want. Here are some tips on the best ways not to drown in spam.
My inbox is full of messages from people trying to sell me stuff. What's going on?
Like anyone who uses email, you're being showered with spam: electronic junk mail.
Internet monitors say that mass-mailed messages flogging anything from dodgy loans to hardcore porn regularly account for over 75% of the world's internet traffic. If you're not careful, they'll jam your inbox and bury the real messages you actually want to read.
Where does spam come from?
Originally, spam was sent from a relatively small number of servers around the world run by the spammers. However, nowadays up to 80% of the world's spam is sent from quite innocent companies' or universities' servers, and even from home computers like yours.
Such computers, called zombies, have been infected by viruses that put them under the control of spammers. The spammers are then able to get them to do their dirty work for them, sending out thousands of spam messages a day.
This gives them the double advantage of not having to pay for a server, and hiding their identity.
What can I do about it?
Luckily, a lot of spam can now be siphoned off your incoming mail by spam filters. These separate the messages that have spam-like qualities, for example: known spam sender addresses; large lists of target addresses; or certain words in the subject field. The suspect messages are diverted to a junk mail folder that you can go through to check for messages you want, before deleting the rubbish.
If you have a web-based email account such as Hotmail or Gmail, you're already getting the benefit of a decent spam filter. Gmail's anti-spam technology is one of the best filters anywhere. Likewise, if you use your ISP's email service, its spam filters should deal with most of the unwanted crap.
Otherwise, you might have to search the web for a spam filtering program that will work with your email software.
Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to get rid of all spam. Even the best filters get fooled sometimes.
Is there anything else I can do?
Even with the best spam filter in the world, some spam still gets through, and you still have to go through the junk folder just to make sure you haven't missed an important message. So it pays to follow certain guidelines to help minimise the amount of attention you get from spammers.
- Be careful about signing up to newsletters. Often these can lead to you receiving unwanted mail from advertisers. Be careful about who you give your address to, and always tick the box that opts you out of receiving mailout from third parties.
- Use desktop search engines to organise your inbox. Free downloads, like Google Desktop, create searchable indexes of your email. This makes it far easier to cut to the chase when you're looking through your mail.
- Use web-based email. The spam filters on web-based email clients are among the most powerful (as are their virus and phishing filters). In addition, some of them (like Gmail or Yahoo Mail) let you configure them to send messages on to your desktop email program, so you can read and compose messages offline, but still know you've lost the dross.
What if my computer is a zombie?
If your computer has become a spam-spewing zombie, you may start to get bounce-back messages from people you never sent a message to. You might also find your broadband connection having sudden sluggish spells, your harddrive working overtime or your keyboard and mouse being unresponsive.
The threat of being made a zombie is yet another reason to make sure you keep your computer's anti-virus protection up to date. If you think you have been infected, first check that your anti-virus program is switched on - often a successful infection will turn it off. Then make sure you have got all the latest updates, and run a complete check.
You might also want to see whether you have been labelled a spammer. Find out what your IP address is from WhatismyIP.com and then run it through DNSstuff.com's Spam Database Lookup to see whether any antispam companies have recommended blocking your address.
If none of that works, you might well have to wipe and re-install your operating system, so make sure you back up all your stuff first. It sounds like hard work, but it's worth doing to de-zombie your machine.
Written by Simon Easterman
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