Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How to Reduce Spam

The word “spam” was originally created during a contest held in 1937 by Hormel Foods to name their innovative wartime canned high-protein food, originally named “Hormel Spiced Ham.” The winner of the contest won $100 by simply combining the words “spiced ham” to form an acronym—SPAM™ (see www.spam.com).

Among the children forced to eat SPAM™ luncheon meat (who didn’t necessarily like it) the word “spam” took on overtones of “cheap,” and “processed” food.

So it’s not too surprising that when those children grew up and needed a word to describe the vast numbers of unwanted marketing emails—often hawking scams, pornography, or illegal schemes—clogging their inboxes, they turned to a familiar word, and labeled the stuff “spam.”

I personally don’t mind the occasional SPAM™-containing meal, although the “spam” in my email can get irritating. And this blog entry is not about the canned spiced ham. It’s about email “spam.”

I don’t know if it is or ever will be possible to completely eliminate email spam, but these are my tips on how to prevent much of it:

Keep a Throwaway Email Address for Mailing Lists

If you really want to join a mailing list (or sign up for some online service or open an account with an online merchant), try to join only those that you trust not to sell your information to internet marketers. Read their privacy policies before signing up. (I know, I know, who wants to read the fine print? But it really will help you figure out who you should trust.)

And for the lists that you do sign up for, use a free email account separate from the one you use for personal friend-and-family communications. Just because it’s a throwaway address doesn’t mean you can’t check it frequently and still get all the updates from your mailing lists that you wish to receive.

I have found free Yahoo email accounts to be good as a throwaway address. You can get a gigabyte of free email storage space, plus a spam-blocking function. If you tag an email once as spam, you never have to look at emails from that address again, because they automatically go into a separate junk folder that doesn’t contribute to your storage space usage. The junk folder also gets emptied automatically after a month (which gives you time to realize it and go retrieve “good” emails if they mistakenly get sent to that folder).

Also, tell your friends and family that if they want to forward you stuff, to forward only to your throwaway email address. Read further for why this is a good strategy.

Keep Forwarding to a Minimum (Or at Least Forward Intelligently)

This is the main topic I would like all my readers to remember. There is an occupation out there on the wide world web called “spam harvester.” If this title calls to mind images of spidery machinery crawling menacingly around the electronic connections of cyberspace, you’re not alone.

These harvesters will glean any information about you that they can get, from anywhere they can find it. They compile all this information into lists, which they then sell to spam marketers. One source of their addresses is disreputable or scam mailing lists that people may sign up for, as I mentioned above.

But another source that many people may not think about is forwarded emails.

You could resolve to never forward jokes, thoughts, essays, or anything else to anyone. Ever. And that might help a little. But this is an area where you can’t necessarily control what happens to your own address. This time, we all have to help each other.

Even if you don’t forward something that a friend sends you and a bunch of other people, but any one of your friend’s recipients forwards that email to anyone else, all the addresses (including yours), as well as all of the addresses all the way down the “forwarding” line, will often just be sitting there right in the content of the email!

Some spammer will likely eventually get that email forwarded to him. And all it takes is one address harvester to pick up an address, sell it to dozens of spammers, and there goes the integrity of your email inbox.

The problem is the “TO” field. Whatever is entered into this field is visible to downstream recipients of an email. So here’s where your innate altruism and desire for good karma must come into play. You can’t necessarily stop this from happening to your own email address. Your actions can only directly affect those to whom you forward emails or from whom you receive emails.

To keep your forwarding “intelligent,” follow these steps:

1. Use the “BC” Field

To prevent your friends' email addresses from getting on any more spam lists, don't include your recipients’ email addresses in the “TO” or in the “CC” (carbon copy) fields on any widely-distributed emails.

In general, whenever you send an email to more than just a few people, you should put only your own email address (preferably your throwaway address) in the “TO” field, and “BC” (blind copy) everyone else that you want to send it to. This hides any email address except yours from the recipients, and keeps your recipients’ addresses from being received by downstream spam harvesters.

2. Delete Email Headers

When you receive a forward that you decide you will propel onward in its web journey (you do actually make considered judgments before automatically forwarding, don’t you?), don’t just click “forward” and then “send.” Spend a few more seconds, and clean up the headers first.

In general, don’t forward emails “as attachments,” because then you can’t edit what you’re forwarding. Forward items in the body of your new email—that way you can delete any email addresses that might remain in the content of the email. (You could also clean out those pesky “>>” symbols that some email programs put on every line every time you forward something, but that’s a pet peeve for another blog entry.)

Spread the Word

So now you know how to reduce spam.

We all need to educate our fellow netizens in the never-ending fight against spam. It's up to all of us to keep our friends’ addresses off those lists, and it’s up to our friends to keep our addresses off those lists. Nobody seems to have figured out a better way to prevent spam yet, so we all need to get on board with this strategy.

In that interest, please tell everyone you know.

Send them a link to this blog entry, for example. :)

And happy emailing to all of you!

Portions of this blog entry were based on an email from Spencer Hopper, October 12, 2004. Copyright © 2006 Carol Jeanne Hopper Holmes. This posting is offered to internet users free of charge under the following conditions: internet users may maintain one electronic copy and one print copy of the file for incidental, noncommercial use by members of the user’s household. This copyright notice must remain on all copies.