By now you probably read a myriad of articles on how governments and technology masters are proposing to fight, reduce and/or eliminate spam, also known as electronic junk-mail. I don’t even have to start this article with the habitual introduction on ‘what is spam’, because I am certain you already know it and hate it. This article will not go into the questionable implementation and use of commercially available tools and technologies. Instead, I will touch on very basic common sense techniques that can efficiently reduce the amount of spam. This article is particularly useful for all those who intend to start an e-commerce business, or just put up a website, for fun or profit.
Spam is here to stay. Whatever you hear from government officials, from Bill Gates, from software vendors, from PhDs in technology, the crude fact is, as one cannot stop the internet, one cannot stop spam in the cyberspace that exists today. Period – end of story.
The volume and the offensive nature of the questionable practice of email spamming is increasing at an exponential rate, as I’m reading in reports published by statistics gurus such as Gartner. What do we do about it? The short answer is that there is no 100% fool-proof solution. However, implementing the suggestions and techniques that I will share with you in this article, can definitely help reduce it.
Never publish your e-mail address on your web site.
The primary way that spammers obtain your e-mail address is through the use of spambots, or spiders (technical term for automated programs that run over the internet), that scour the web searching for the ubiquitous @ sign – the telltale indicator of an e-mail address. These spiders search your web page and harvest everything that looks like it might be an e-mail address. Then, the spammer will add the obtained addresses to a large list and, will use it to promote some obscene and/or bogus product or service. Lastly, the spammer will sell the list to other spammers and/or resellers and your email address will start perpetually circulating.
The only way to avoid having your address harvested in this way is not to publish it there in the first place.
Of course, you probably do want potential customers and other visitors to be able to contact you. At first glance, Tip #1 might seem self-defeating, but there is an alternative – read on!
Use Mail Forms Instead of listing and/or linking to the actual, explicit email address.
The specifics of setting email forms (also referred to as web forms, mail forms, cgi forms) are not in the scope of this article, only because every web host uses various pieces of software, written in various programming languages to achieve this. Basically, the way it works is, your visitor gets to a page, fills up a few boxes with text, hits a “Submit” button, then the mail form processor sends you an email. Your email address can still be grabbed by persistent spammers, since it is usually hidden in the page, but there are several stealth techniques that I will discuss in detail in a different article. Also, most web hosting companies implement automatic spambot deterring techniques that you can take advantage of by merely using their hosting services.
Never follow the “unsubscribe instructions” contained in a spam e-mail.
Spammers often use bogus “unsubscribe instructions” to verify that your e-mail address is working. Following these bogus instructions will most likely result in your e-mail address being added to even more spam lists. Basically, the spammer now knows that the address that probably came from a scrape or from some unverified list or from a random generator is actually a valid one, there’s a person out there who got it and responded back. Your address will now be marked as “premium” on the black market and will become even more circulated, sold and used.
You can make one single exception to this rule, in the case when you know for sure that you subscribed to someone’s newsletter voluntarily, and that someone is a reputable company that you trust 100%.
Don’t forward chain-letters, virus warnings, etc.
Most chain letters and virus warnings that you receive by e-mail are either hoaxes, or they are initiated by spam houses for the intent of getting every email address you know. Chain letters spread like wildfire and always tend to end up right back at the spam house, with the email address of everyone it was sent to. Before you take any action regarding an unsolicited virus warning, check the validity of the warning at http://www.sarc.com/, and/or http://www.sophos.com/virusinfo/, and/or [http://www.mcafee.com/us/security/vil.htm]. I’ve never received a virus warning by e-mail that didn’t turn out to be a hoax; and many of these hoaxes advise you to delete key system files that will end up damaging your computer (and the computers of all your friends that you forwarded the bogus warning to.)
Use POP E-mail Accounts & E-Mail Fowarding Creatively.
Another popular way of harvesting e-mail addresses is through your own correspondence. Every time you purchase something online or e-mail a company or organization, your e-mail address is available for addition to a mailing list. Don’t put too much faith in the privacy statements of web sites that you don’t have experience with. Spammers make their living by theft and deception – they’re certainly not beyond providing false information in their privacy statements.
Usually, when you purchase web hosting, all of your accounts come with some free e-mail forwarding and some free additional POP e-mail accounts.You can use these features to your advantage in your fight against spam:
First, create a new POP user just for the purpose of collecting spam. Call it anything you want, for example, email@example.com – you’re never going to use it for anything but collecting spam.
Now, take a look at the spam you’re receiving and notice the address it’s being sent to. In many cases, spammers grab your domain name and just make up addresses to attach to it (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com are among the most popular). When you notice spam addressed to an e-mail address that you do not need for regular business or personal use, create an email forward that redirects mail sent to that address to the spam-catching POP account you created in the preceding step.
The spammers often harvest addresses from the domain name WHOIS system, grabbing your administrative, billing, and technical contact e-mail addresses to add to their lists. Use a unique e-mail forward for your contact information, and when the spam begins to arrive at that address, change your domain name record to reflect a new forwarded address, and redirect the old address to the spam-catcher POP.
Whenever you order a product or service online, create a unique e-mail forward for the company you’re ordering from. For example, if you’re ordering a CD from amazon.com, use firstname.lastname@example.org when you register with them (don’t forget to replace yourdomain.com with your actual domain name; and don’t forget to create an e-mail forward to deliver mail to a valid POP account.) This approach provides two benefits: 1) it allows you to redirect that address to your spam-catcher if you start receiving spam; and 2) it will let you know who’s selling your personal information to spammers – you can then decide whether those companies are deserving of your trust and future business.
[NOTE: Eventually, your spam-catcher POP account will fill up and exceed its quota, as allocated by your hosting provider. When this happens, e-mail that’s sent to that POP account will begin “bouncing back” with an error message to the sender. Don’t worry about that – it won’t hurt anything. If the spammers actually provide a valid return address (which almost none do), the bounce will serve as notice that you’re not accepting their mail.]
Use spam filters.
Most reputable hosting companies use spam-filtering software and give you access to many administration features. Do your homework and check the features that came with your account.
Spam filters compare incoming mail against several “spam blacklists” and automatically delete e-mail sent from any source included on any of those lists. Please note that blacklists and spam filters in general are not perfect – there’s not a filtering product available on the market that won’t 1) occasionally let spam slip through and get delivered, and worse, 2) occasionally reject valid e-mail as spam. Note that any mail deleted as a result of server-side spam filtering is not recoverable. There are other spam filtering options available to you to install locally – this gives you the choice of what to filter and what not to filter, and gives you the opportunity to recover valid e-mail that was mistakenly deleted by the filter.