Combatting E-mail Spam


I don’t know how it’s done, but it seems that as soon as you set up a new e-mail address you start receiving unsolicited messages trying to sell you things. Get a degree by post! Take these pills and, er, please your girlfriend! And so on… These e-mails are called spam and, if you’ve encountered them, are incredibly annoying. So how can you stop them?

Firstly, guard your e-mail address. Don’t put it on a webpage unless you disguise it in some way (via JavaScript or by using an image, for instance). The reason for this is some spam mailers automatically crawl websites looking for e-mail adddresses to add to their mailing lists. Once you’re on a mailing list it’s very difficult to get off it, so it’s easier not to get added in the first place!

If you are receiving spam, though, there are a number of things to do.

As tempting as it is to reply and tell the spammers to get lost, doing so will only confirm that your e-mail address is valid. Valid e-mail addresses are worth more to spammers than unconfirmed ones, so by letting them know your address is “real” you’ll end up on even more mailing lists as your details get sold on. You might also see an “unsubscribe” link in the e-mail. Even there it’s best not to use it unless you know you genuinely signed up for e-mails from that company. If you’re receiving unsolicited e-mails it’ll probably make no difference if you try to unsubscribe and could end up confirming your details again to a spammer who will sell them on.

Some mail software can “bounce” e-mails back, making it look as if they have been delivered to a non-functioning e-mail address. Whilst there’s some satisfaction in doing this, imagining that evil spammer having to wade through screens and screens of bounce notifications, I don’t think it actually makes a difference. I still get spam from companies I’ve bounced e-mails back to, and I’d be willing to bet nobody even sees the notifications. My advice here is do it if it’ll make you feel better, but as for actually combatting spam? It’s not really an effective solution.

The best solution I’ve come across is to employ some sort of adaptive spam filter. This checks your e-mails and highlights or deletes the e-mails it thinks are spam. The reason I’d recommend going for an adaptive one is that it’s very handy to be able to teach your filter what you consider to be spam and what you consider to be legitimate. I’ve used Mailwasher before (when I as a PC user) and found it to be pretty good. Apple Mail also has an adaptive junk mail filter, but by far the best I’ve come across is actually built into Google Mail. After a bit of time, marking spam as such and correcting e-mails incorrectly identified as spam, the amount of junk mail hitting my inbox has dropped to practically zero, whilst my spam folder sits at about 1,000 junk messages per month.

I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of spam completely and, once you’re on a spam mailing list, I don’t think you can ever stop it being sent to your mail account. But if you can automate the process of deciding what’s spam and what’s not, you’re well on the way to reclaiming your inbox from the spammers.

If you have any comments to make, or if I missed something, please to contribute in the comments.

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  1. Totally agree Chris – Google mail is the way to go to combat spam. I switched our company email to Google (via Google apps, using our domain) and I cannot believe how effective the spam filters are – much more so than Outlook’s.

    • Thanks Mike. I’m wondering if there’s a killer spam filter for non-gMail users though. Anyone got some recommendations?

      I have to admit that the spam filter in Apple Mail never gets to display its full potential on my computer because gMail has already done a lot of the filtering for me, although it does tend to catch any spam that slips through. I wonder how good it would be if I didn’t use gMail’s filtering.

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