You’ve Got Mail — Lots and Lots of Mail

Spam. The mere utterance of the word can turn a computer user’s stomach in an instant.
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Spam. The mere utterance of the word can turn a computer user’s stomach in an instant.

No, I’m not talking about canned meat, although that might bring about the same reaction in many people. The fact is that e-mail spam is a nuisance and the one thing on which the majority of the world’s e-mail-using population can agree unanimously.

Recent statistics show 90 billion spam messages are sent per day. Yes, that’s billion with a “B,” and that’s per day with a “holy cow.”

Statistics also show that 89 percent of e-mail messages received are spam e-mails. Just one look at one day’s worth of messages in my inbox and I can easily attest to that.

Spam messages advertise a variety of products and services, some innocent, others not so innocent, anything from prescription drugs to mortgages; software products to dating sites.

People must obviously be responding to these calls to action, making spamming profitable. In fact, estimates show approximately 8 percent of spam targets have opened their wallets to purchase the advertised items. Although 8 percent may not seem like a large percentage, it’s more than enough to keep spammers in business.

Filtering

In response to this digital plague, the CANSPAM Act — for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing” — was signed into law in 2003. Although it did little to stop or even slow the volume of spam, it did put in place some requirements for these e-mails.

One is the “opt out” link that is required in all spam messages. In reality, clicking on this link only confirms your e-mail address as valid to the spammers and opens the flood gates to more messages. My personal suggestion is to simply delete the message.

Other requirements set in place include clear labeling of adult-oriented messages, legitimate “from” addresses and a valid subject line. Spam messages that do not comply with these requirements are considered illegal — but only in the United States. The U.S. does lead the world in spam messages sent, but this law does little to bridle the messages sent from China, Russia and other countries.

Ultimately, the responsibility of filtering or blocking these messages comes down to the individual e-mail user. With a variety of hardware- and software-based products available on the market, it comes down to personal preference and the each product’s effectiveness.

I personally use a software filter that moves all spam messages to a specific folder to be deleted later. There are other options that filter out the messages before it even reaches your e-mail client.

Arms race

Fighting spam has become a virtual arms race. As spam-fighting software gets “smarter,” the spammers use new ways of getting their messages through our defenses.

Last year, spammers realized that they could get through text filters by using graphics instead. Spammers have also become creative in their spelling of related products or keywords. As an example, the word e-mail can be typed as “ema1l,” “em@il,” “e-maile” or a variety of other ways to get through filters set in place.

On the more sinister side, spam goes further than simply advertising a product.

Many spam messages have the primary intent of tricking recipients into providing e-mail account passwords, bank account information or other sensitive data. These “phishing” schemes (yes, spelled with a ph) have become quite advanced in their methods.

A relative of mine recently acted on a message she received informing that her e-mail account may have been compromised. The message provided a link where she entered her account username and password to confirm she was the proper user. Within hours of that message, she received another message, this time from the actual ISP. It stated that her e-mail account had been shut down because it was being used to send spam. Yes, it happens that quickly.

Within the last month or so of this writing, spammers have been using several new methods to ensnare their victims. Whether they are PDF files featuring advertisements, online greeting cards containing a virus or a membership welcome message with a phishing link, all e-mail users should be very careful when determining what is legitimate and what isn’t.

One common rule is to consider any unexpected attachment, especially when received from an unknown address, as potentially virus-laden spam. I recently had to perform digital surgery on a laptop at the station after an online greeting card was opened. In my opinion, 30 seconds of warm and fuzzy accompanied by a quick laugh is not worth the hours you could potentially spend trying to get rid of a computer bug.

Any e-mails you receive from your credit card company or Paypal that ask you to log in through a link provided in the message should be considered suspicious. If there is a problem with your account, it is safer to either call or log in through their actual site than to use the link provided.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of legitimate credit card and Paypal-related messages will include your full name in the greeting and not simply “user” or your e-mail address.

The chain

The key is to prevent spammers from getting your e-mail address in the first place. This is an extremely difficult task, especially considering the different methods that are used.

One method I have found that works to keep new spam to a minimum is getting rid of the chain e-mails. Many people enjoy forwarding chain e-mails to friends and family. They simply hit the “forward” button, add a long string of e-mail addresses and off it goes. Take a look at all of the e-mail addresses contained in these messages the next time you receive one. The message may have been forwarded a dozen times before reaching you. Spammers love seeing these messages in their inbox.

A better way is to add all of the contacts in the BCC list or blind copy. The recipients will appear as “undisclosed recipients,” keeping everyone’s e-mail addresses under wraps.

Unless something drastic is done in the near future, I believe spam messages are here to stay and will only increase in frequency. Unless e-mail users globally decide to not support the spammers and stop making purchases linked to these messages, we will continue to see mail servers clogged with spam.

Of course, one person’s spam is the other 8 percent’s ticket to a “great online deal.”

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