Taking control of spam

My father recently came to me fairly distressed and said that he was ready to give up the Internet. He is in his late seventies and a casual Internet user. With his 56Kbps dial-up connection he checks his e-mail no more than twice a week, but bitterly complained that it took nearly two hours to download all the messages. During the last six months the number of e-mails flowing into his inbox had accumulated to a staggering 800 a week—but no more than five would ever be legitimate e-mails from family and friends.

While spam has been around for many years a recent press release had reminded me just how serious and widespread this problem has become. According to a MessageLabs report, last month one in every 1.3 e-mails—or 76 percent—was intercepted as spam. In April it was 67 percent. In September 2001 it was only 7 percent. The whole industry is suffering from the effects of spam. It costs additional mail management time to delete it from our mailboxes. Internet service providers need to increase their staffing levels and hardware to handle the extra bandwidth, disk space and complaints.

For those still unfamiliar with spam, it is also known as unsolicited bulk e-mail. It is unsolicited because you didn’t ask for it and probably don’t even know who sent it. It is bulk because spammers send the same message to hundreds of thousands of unwilling recipients at the same time. Spam can contain everything from “earn $3,000 per month” schemes to rather detailed, and for many, offensive adult content.

Although anti-spam legislation is in place and better anti-spam software has been developed, things don’t seem to have improved that much. Spammers are using even more clever methods to get you to open their e-mail. In the past we saw subject lines with “FREE…56K High Speed Internet Connection” or “Make money fast,” but now they are just as likely to hide their pitches behind apparently innocent subject lines such as “Re: your mail,” “Re: your document,” “Your loan has been approved” or “Your order has been despatched.” The only successful way of blocking spam will be the stop it at the source, which may mean the redesign of the Internet’s global email architecture. Until then, here are a few simple tips you can use to take control of spam today.

Avoid publishing your e-mail address on the Web. Spammers are constantly looking for real e-mail addresses. Easy places to look are in public forums, USENET newsgroup messages, mailing lists, America Online chat rooms or even personal Web sites. Spammers will use automatic address harvesting software known as Web crawlers or robots to extract e-mail addresses from the Web. When Latvians Online switched over to the new forums at the beginning of 2003 many participants complained about the new registration process. But this feature protects their identities and e-mail addresses from unsuspecting robots. One of the oldest Latvian e-mail lists on the Web (Ints’ Latvian Resources), dating back to 1995, has been recently pulled due to undesirable spammer activity. If you are developing a Web site, use an online form similar to the Latvians Online “Contact us” Web page to enable your users or customers to contact you. If you are a regular user of USENET, mung your e-mail address so that it is still readable by a human being, but will create a dead-end for e-mail harvesters. If your e-mail address is yourname@isp.com, then write it as yourname(AT)isp(DOT)com, yourname@isp.INVALID or yourname@isp.com.take.a.hike.spammer. Please don’t make up domain names as they might actually exist and cause the original domain owners a lot of woe.

Use hard-to-guess usernames. When registering for a new e-mail address avoid commonly used words found in the English dictionary. Although they may not be the easiest to remember, the best usernames are those that contain a combination of letters and numbers. Or, better yet, choose a Latvian word.

Have more than one e-mail address. When you look for information on the Web, subscribe to a newsletter or are about to download a software update, you often must leave an e-mail address. This could leave you open to spam e-mails even if the company or information provider has a strict privacy policy and promises that you will not get spam. Instead of using your primary e-mail address, get a free e-mail address that you can afford to spare and give out to information providers in which you are yet to develop a trust in. Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and the soon-to-be-released Google Mail all offer free Webmail and include spam blocking, but they are still favourite targets for spammers. Users with these types of addresses may also be restricted on what they can access on the Internet. Why not try Delfi, Apollo, Mail.lv or Inbox.lv, all of which are based in Latvia? Because they are virtually unknown on a global scale, these service will be much less susceptible to spam. They’ll also come in handy the next time you travel to Latvia or to any other place in the world for that matter. If you have your own domain, you may create multiple mail aliases, for example, leta-news, bns-news, diena-news, sveiks-list and so on. This way you can track where spam is coming from and just terminate the alias when it goes out of control.

Don’t answer spam

While it may sound obvious, spammers thrive on the small percentage of users who hit the reply button. If a spammer sends out 400,000 emails and only 2 percent reply, then they still have potentially captured the attention of 8,000 people—not bad for a day’s work and a marketing campaign that cost the spammer nothing. Even if it makes you furious about receiving a spam e-mail, don’t reply as the first thing this will do is to confirm that your e-mail address is in fact real and being read by a human being. By opening a spam e-mail you may also risk the chance of your computer getting the latest virus (more than 200 new virus strains appear every month). Instead of replying you can help fight spam by visiting the Web site spam.abuse.net.

Spam blockers or filters will attempt to classify incoming messages as spam, good e-mails or undetermined. This means that you can have spam or undetermined messages automatically filed in a different mail folder where they won’t interrupt the reading of legitimate e-mails. Spam blockers or filters can be installed on your computer (normally as plug-ins to your e-mail software), be filtered by your ISP or be made available from an external spam filtering service.

If you decide to install the software on your computer you will need to train the software to differentiate spam from legitimate e-mails. This involves examining a good sample size of both sorts of e-mail and then using these clues to make intelligent decisions when examining new messages. A probability figure between 1 and 100 is calculated indicating how “spammy” the message is. Spam filtering software is now claiming to be 99 percent reliable, but for businesses where every new lead is important the 1 percent is still significant.

ISPs may also install block lists that include numeric IP (or Internet protocol) addresses of known spammers and troublemakers. In some cases, ISPs block all e-mail from China and Hong Kong, top sources for spam. In theory, the spam filtering software should work with most European languages including Latvian.

With so much spam clogging our e-mail networks and up to several hundred new messages entering our inboxes daily, it is very easy to accidentally delete an e-mail that at first glance may seem to be spam. Make it easy on your recipients and improve your chances of getting through to them by including descriptive text in the subject field. If you’re sending an e-mail with a blank subject line or a subject such as “Hello”, “Re:”, “Hi” or “Your document”, the don’t expect a reply too soon.

In the United States, California law requires marketers to place the letters “ADV” in the subject line signifying an advertisement. The Latvians Online Update newsletter is sent out with the subject line text prefixed by “Latvians Online” so that subscribers can instantly recognise they are receiving their next Update newsletter. As Latvians we also have the advantage of including Latvian words that spammers have not yet learned.

My father is smiling again. I have set him up with a new ISP that includes free spam filtering. It is now his third week and he has not received one spam e-mail. With the low volume of e-mails he sometimes wonders whether his e-mail is working at all. Lucky him!

5 thoughts on “Taking control of spam

  1. Have so far only read the 1st part of the article, but it is certainly timely. I too get heaps of junk mail daily (perhaps 35 of the 50 or so messages which accumulate overnight and more from time to time during the day) – over and beyond the hundreds which get caught by the spam filter (“graymail”) which I use for my various @attglobal.net email addresses!

  2. Thanks for the great article.
    Since installing a full security program called “Zone Alarm Security Suite 5.1” last summer, my wife & I now only get approx. 3-4 junk e-mails per week, (with typically several days at a time of NO JUNK E-MAIL). I think it’s most likely a combination of the program + our ISP, (MSN-9), with it’s built-in free junk-mail protection. What I like modst about the ZA 5.1 is the “Privacy” and “ID” protection, and how you can be on the web without your identity and personal information being seen by other web computers, or recorded, or stolen from your own computer!

  3. Another thing to watch out for is an e-mail claiming to be from a bank, e-bay or other organisation you have an account with.

    The e-mail will claim that you need to check or update your account information.

    If you look at the main link to the website mentioned in the e-mail, it is actually a real link to the real organisation’s web site. The trick is that right next to it is a “.” or a space or an underscore which has a different link, one that can send you to a fraudulent website. The fraudulent web site is set up to look like the real one, except they ask you to enter your credit card or account details and password again.

    Even careful users that check to see if the link in the e-mail is OK might just move their mouse a tiny bit to the right as they click, and “spruiks!”, there you are at the fraudsters web site.

    Loti bezkaunigi!!! Uzmanaties!


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