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Let the End of the Year Be the End of Spam

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According to security firm Symantec, the world’s email inboxes were inundated this year, with 87% of messages sent and received being spam. My first thought on seeing this was “Who on earth gets that much spam?” My second one was that despite having a hit rate of around just one in 200, unsolicited messages are obviously still profitable enough to make the effort worthwhile. The main impression I got, however, was that some people, no matter how much they hate spam, are obviously not bothered enough to take steps to protect themselves. Minimising spam isn’t difficult; all it takes is a few simple steps.

Your email address is your own
One, two, three, or dozens of email addresses, you set them up for a reason. Getting offers for herbal aphrodisiacs and questionable pharmaceuticals probably wasn’t part of that equation. Generally, you should only give your email address to those you trust, whether an individual or website. Granted, sometimes you have to give out your contact details to get something you want, like a free download, but that doesn’t mean you have to make yourself a hostage to fortune. If you’re worried that a website or company is going to sell you off to the highest bidder, use a disposable email address from somewhere like Mailinator so that you can get in, fulfil whatever authentication measure you need, and get out again knowing that you won’t be pestered with unwanted marketing for years to come.

Read carefully
I subscribe to a couple of RSS feeds that track viruses, spam and other internet nasties. What they highlighted over the last year is that whenever an issue hit the news (it’s been Tiger Woods most recently), spammers would amend their messages to include the hot topic in their messages. Now, while browsers have gotten better at detecting malware on websites and warning users about any potential dangers, when you’re looking at your inbox it’s just you and the subject line. This is especially dangerous if the message purportedly comes from one of your regular contacts. Here, common sense is key: why is your Aunt Betsy, who hates golf and only ever sends you pictures of cats in sweaters, suddenly sending you three emails a day about Tiger Woods and nude photoshoots? Aunt Betsy has either been hacked or spoofed. If an email address seems out of character, or has appeared unexpectedly from an address you do not recognise, don’t open it. Instead, flag it as spam and delete. If it was legitimate and important, the sender will probably rewrite and resend it with a less spammy subject line.

Protect yourself
If you’re using webmail, most providers have some sort of filtering in place already. For desktop applications, there are also spam filters in place, though I can’t vouch for their effectiveness when faced with malware disguised as attachments. This is why it’s always a good idea to make email scanning a part of your general computer security. Avast! scans my emails and their attachments for me when they hit my email client, and warns me if anything seems suspicious. I use webmail accounts that are already filtered before they are downloaded to my computer, so I can’t say how much work the antivirus is doing as opposed to the webmail provider themselves, but I do know that getting a spam message for me these days is a notable experience, distracting enough for me to trawl through my records trying to figure out when I may have been careless enough to give out one of my addresses to an undesirable.

Spam is incredibly annoying, and, for the majority of people, entirely unwanted. While 2009 may have been a bumper year for the spammers, there’s no reason to continue being their victim next year. With a few simple steps, you can protect your inbox from unwanted attention. It will take a little more effort that crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, but you can minimise your spam load if you want to. If enough people did the same, spammers would soon be discouraged by lower profits.

[Image by Oran Viriyincy]

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