Take Back Your Inbox

By William G. Schwab

In today’s world the most valuable commodity is your attention. You only have so much attention span. Attention is not the same as time.

In this world everyone with e-mail faces spam. There is unwanted e-mail offering to help you do everything from assisting with a $30 million Nigerian problem to getting the lowest interest rate to making you “bigger.” In fact, over 40 percent of all e-mail is unwanted and unrequested.

Most people receive spam because they have taken some action on the Internet that “publishes” their address to the world. Knowing how junk mailers find your address makes it easier for you to prevent it in the future. Here’s a list of the hows.

Seven Risky Practices

  • Shopping sites. Although legitimate online businesses such as jcpenney.com send out relatively little spam, other commercial websites are not so understanding. In other words, watch where you shop online.
  • A free e-mail account. Obtaining a free e-mail address from Hotmail, Yahoo! and the rest does not generate spam. Giving it out does!
  • Subscribing to a newsletter. Provided you checked the box that you don’t wish to receive e-mail from other vendors, most newsletter services, such as Findlaw.com, will respect your wishes. However, again beware that Uncle Charlie’s bigger and better website might not honor your request.
  • E-mail links on website. Spammers often use programs called “spiders” that crawl web pages looking for e-mail addresses. A spider can usually find an e-mail address as long as it’s in text or HTML format.
  • UseNet or other message boards. Spammers also send spiders to crawl message boards, which are usually chock full of e-mail addresses. (Use a free disposable address like Hotmail or Yahoo!)
  • Registering for a sweepstakes or online lottery. You’re just asking for spam by doing this.
  • Chat rooms. Your e-mail address is out for all to see.

One type of spam you can’t prevent is a dictionary attack. Have you ever received junk e-mail where your address appears in alphabetical order with others? This is accomplished through the use of two dictionaries: one of commonly used names, and one of known domain names.

Another method of spamming that is virtually unstoppable, because users usually don’t know it’s happening, are e-mails that come to you in HTML format. The graphics are not actually “in” the e-mail; however, they reside on a computer somewhere on the Internet, and are downloaded into your e-mail when you open it. To get to you, the spammer simply puts a code into an image file. When the e-mail is opened, the code is sent back, telling the spammer that he (or she) has found a valid e-mail address. Not even the Preview Pane feature of Outlook can help you; the image is downloaded there, too.

Finally, one of the best ways to assure your permanent position on a spammer’s list is to reply to an unwanted e-mail. Although many bulk e-mailers will respect your “unsubscribe” request, the more unscrupulous spammers will view your request as proof of a valid e-mail address. And to spammers, there’s nothing more valuable than a good e-mail address. So unless you know the vendor’s reputation, resist the urge to hit Reply.

How do you stop spam? There’s the delete key. Unfortunately, mass deletes can sometimes lead to the trashing of legitimate e-mails.

Today’s current technology cannot stop spam from invading your inbox. Spammers are constantly coming up with new ways of getting their message out, and so-called “spam filters” are having a hard time keeping up. In fact, recent surveys indicate that while only about 25 percent of spam gets blocked by software or blacklists, over 35 percent of legitimate e-mail is also blocked by these services.

Most ISPs and e-mail programs contain built-in spam filters, but in general they are weak and ineffective against today’s tough new breed of junk mail. Each program uses slightly different technology to accomplish its task. Some programs check messages against blacklists, which are public catalogs of known spammers. Others look for words or phrases that junk e-mailers routinely use, while still others examine the headers of each e-mail. Many spam-fighting tools utilize a combination of these methods.

Common software products include the following: SpamNet, MailWasher, Habeas, MailShell, ChoiceMail, SpamKiller, SpamCop, and SpamGourmet. These programs are fairly effective at eliminating a lot of the spam, but none of them is a substitute for good old-fashioned common sense. By practicing good spam-busting habits, you will make your e-mail address an unwelcome target for a spammer.

Remember, never reply to spam. By doing so, you provide to the spammer the information that your e-mail address is valid. Often, the address you reply to does not even exist, so your attempts to “unsubscribe” may be fruitless.

—William G. Schwab, GPSolo New Lawyer Editor

The author wishes to thank Guy Alvarez, Esquire, whose presentation entitled “E-Mail Triage: Take Back Your Inbox,” at 2003 ABA Techshow, formed a basis for this article.

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