Back in the day, we used to bemoan the fact that our mailboxes gave us an increasing amount of useless garbage we referred to collectively as “junk mail.” The invention of email gave us a short respite from junk mail, but the bad guys and the advertising wizards figured out a way to get access to email, and spam ensued. Spam simply refers to the electronic equivalent of junk mail in this context and has nothing to do with the manufactured lunch meat sharing the same name.
As time marched on, the inundation of spam increased until, for many people, it overran almost everything else in their email accounts. We saw the percentage of spam to regular email change for the worse in our own accounts; most people to whom we have talked reported the same situation.
We do not have reliable statistics to quote you as to the percentage that spam represents in the total volume of email these days. In part, this results from the fact that different folks use different definitions for spam. According to some estimates we have seen, between 45 percent and 85 percent of all email is now spam. We can tell you anecdotally that we have experimented by setting up extra accounts and leaving them unprotected. Somehow, the address gets out there, and spam starts. Once it starts, it grows faster than a puppy from a large breed of dogs until it overwhelms everything else in the account. Even in accounts that we have tried to protect, the amount of spam continues to increase rapidly and dramatically. Trying to control spam becomes a constant battle between you (or your email administrator) and the bad guys and advertisers. We wish that we could give you a magic bullet that would kill all spam. Unfortunately, we have not yet found it. Instead, we will do our best to help you by giving you some pointers to try to protect yourself from spam. Know from the start, however, that you cannot ever expect to stop spam entirely if you have an email account. The most you can hope for is to reduce the amount of spam you must contend with during your day.
As spam includes many cybersecurity threats, dealing with it effectively has benefits for your own time and convenience and potentially addresses ethical considerations imposed on attorneys.
To start with, we need a definition of spam. Different people have adopted different language to describe the phenomenon. For our purposes, we consider spam to consist of:
- All communications connected to scams.
- All uninvited advertising. We considered including all advertising in this category but relented as we know that we want to hear from certain vendors, and we suspect you do, too. Our choice of selected vendors will undoubtedly differ from yours, however; remember, beauty rests in the beholder’s eye.
- All donation requests for political races throughout the country (if we want to make a donation, we can figure out how to do so on our own).
- All donation requests for social movements throughout the world (again, if we want to make a donation, we can figure out how to do so on our own).
- Anything else we get that we don’t particularly want.
Yes, we know our definition leaves something to be desired in terms of specificity, but we do the best we can. You can use ours, find another you like better, or create your own definition; the bottom line remains getting control of the beast. No matter what you do, understand that it will not work very long. Cybercriminals and advertisers spend considerable money, time, and effort to get through whatever barriers you erect to bar their communications. They always have the upper hand, as they proactively create the point of attack, leaving you and your support to react to their new strategy.
Now that we have a general idea of what we want to bar, we need to address the question of what to do to minimize the existence of spam in our inbox. You have lots of things that can help you mitigate spam; we suggest, at a minimum, that you adopt the following approach:
Tip 1. Get and Use a Spam Filter
Most email services and clients include antispam software baked into the system. Ensure that yours does. If not, either get a new service or client or install your own antispam software. Make sure you have engaged it and that you have adjusted the settings to provide a reasonable compromise of sensitivity—it should provide protection but still allow you to get the email you want to receive.
Tip 2. Use Disposable Email Accounts
Most of us have more than one email account. Some of us actually use them for different purposes. You can easily open more email accounts at no cost. If you do that and use the “extra” email address for online registrations, newsletters, contact information for purchases, etc., you protect your primary addresses from additional and unnecessary exposure. When a disposable address gets overrun by spam, you can simply shut it down and move to another, keeping your primary addresses somewhat protected.
Tip 3. Use Lists of Approved Senders
We do not particularly like the fact that these lists traditionally get called “whitelists” and “blacklists,” but we do not have the power to change that right now. The bottom line, however, is that the use of these lists enables you to tell the email client to allow email from approved senders in the door and keep email from senders not approved out. Generally, we think of that as a good thing, but it carries a risk that important email from an unapproved sender may get barred from your inbox. For that reason, regularly review your spam folder to see if something that you want to see got sent there.
Tip 4. Be Careful about Unsubscribing
This may seem counterintuitive, but pay attention to it anyway. Many emails give you an option to unsubscribe from a list. While unsubscribing from a list you do not want may seem like a smart thing to do, it may prove dangerous. The bad guys often create phony email addresses and phony websites. An unsubscribe link prepared by a bad guy may actually unsubscribe you from nothing but, instead, take you to a connection that will download malware onto your device. We don’t have a good answer for this, but we wanted to bring it to your attention.
Tip 5. Don’t Click Links in Questionable Emails
What list about limiting email risks and spam could be complete without a warning against clicking links in questionable emails? Those links could lead to downloading malware that can magnify the problem.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 13, Number 5, December 2023. © 2023 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.