Keeping Spam in the Can

Spam is not just a tasty tinned meat product. It is also the term used by internet users for the annoying junk mail that you see every time you check your inbox. Spam senders use simple computer programmes to send the offending emails to millions of addresses. Experts estimate that by 2006 each user of the internet will receive 1,400 of them a year!

Also known as UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email), spam has been estimated to represent 1 in 8 emails sent worldwide. A recent study by software manufacturer Symantec found that, out of 1,000 people surveyed, close to a quarter spent more
than 20 minutes every day dealing with spam. For those of us paying to use internet cafes to check our mail, deleting spam can become costly. A 2001 survey by the European Commission estimates that junk email costs internet users worldwide $8.8bn a year!

Meet the spammers

Spam comes in many forms. Most junk mail is for products offering increased virility, rapid weight loss, or enlargement of certain parts of the male anatomy. Such products are often highly suspect, possibly even dangerous. Unless you enjoy being relieved of your money these messages are best ignored.

Another familiar sight is email offering to let you see young women getting up to all sorts of mischief. If you like this sort of thing you are welcome to visit their sites, but be aware that at some point soon you will require a credit card to see the really juicy bits.

Some are simple get rich quick schemes, which will simply result in you becoming poorer, faster. At the top of the guilt list for this type of spam are Nigerian conmen who offer a share in vast sums of money that must be embezzled from the West African country – the so called 419 scam. This scam has actually resulted in a number of kidnappings and even murders. The American FBI collects details of these emails. Recently variations of these emails have started emanating from the Cote D’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo. You would be wise not to correspond with such dodgy characters.

Coping with the deluge

There are a number of ways of reducing the burden. Most email providers have an option to filter junk mail. You should check that this is switched on. In Yahoo! Mail this is automatic. In Hotmail, you click on the Options tab, then on Junk Mail, and make sure that Junk Email Filter is switched on. Users of other email providers should check the help pages of their site. Unfortunately, no filtering system can ever guarantee a spam free life, and results vary wildly.

The next bet is to prevent your email address being added to the lists that spam senders use. Always be careful when you are asked to give your email address to enter a web site. Think – do I need to give them my real email address? If they will be sending you a password to enter the site, then obviously you will have to give it, but check for a box to tick saying you don’t want your address shared. If no password will be sent it is a good idea to give a false email address – e.g. mindyourown@business.com. Another option is starting a second email address, whilst keeping a private account for giving to family and friends. Since sites such as Hotmail and Yahoo! place no limit on how many accounts you can have, it costs nothing to take advantage of this.

A common piece of advice is never to click on “unsubscribe” or “remove me” links in junk emails. These could confirm to the sender that your email address is real and read by a human being. However, after extensive research, peacefire.org founder Bennett Haselton says, The risks of following the ‘unsubscribe’ instructions are miniscule, but the benefits are usually even more miniscule, so it’s still probably not a good idea.

Sadly, even opening spam can show spammers you exist. If you recognise spam delete it without opening it.

Following the above practices you should find that the amount of spam you receive is less than before, although if you are really suffering it may be best to set up a new address entirely.

At the end of the day there will still be some you will have to delete. No system is perfect.

Interesting web sites

  • www.junkbusters.org – more advice on dealing with junk mail, and the SpamOff contract which might enable you to sue junk mailers for every shilling they have!
  • spam.abuse.net – articles, the history of spam, tools and advice.
  • thespamletters.com – one man’s often hilarious correspondence with spammers.

Originally published in Arusha Times 274

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