TechSoup.org The place for nonprofits, charities, and libraries

Things You Can Do to Prevent Spam

Follow these handy steps for a spam-free inbox

Things You Can Do to Prevent Spam 
Carlos Bergfeld and Susan Tenby - August 01, 2011
TechSoup Community members offer their expert advice on reducing spam.

This article was updated by TechSoup Web Content Developer Carlos Bergfeld in August 2011.

Face it, your inbox is infested with spam. Worldwide, 77.8 percent of emails received in July 2011 were spam, according to the Symantec Intelligence Report. That means nearly 8 out of every 10 emails, on average, are junk. And it's not like you asked for all of these messages. Or did you? Whether you realize it or not, your behavior online plays a big role in who has access to your email address — and that includes spammers.

Even more important, spam emails are a major vector for malware and phishing. One in 281 emails contain malware and one in 319 emails were phishing, according to Symantec in its most recent report. That means opening spam can infect your organization's systems with viruses or send out your organization's sensitive information to malicious parties. Either of those scenarios can cause a lot more pain and suffering than an inbox full of junk mail.

Regardless, you're probably frustrated by unwanted mail and want to do something about it. Rest assured that there are steps you can take to reduce the amount of junk flooding your inbox and prevent malicious intrusions on your computers and data.

We asked TechSoup Community members for their expert advice on ways to drastically reduce the amount of spam ambushing your inbox. Here's what they suggested.

Take Precautions

  • Use a complicated email username. Spammers' software will look for the easy and obvious addresses first, such as those with identifiable names like "john1977@hotmail.com," as opposed to "sjk839@gmail.com."
  • Preview your messages before you open them. Outlook (and many other email clients) let you use a preview mode to peek at the contents of a message before you actually open it. To do this in Outlook, go to the View menu and select Reading Pane. Instead of double clicking a message, click it once to select it and you'll see the message displayed in the Reading Pane.

Think Before You Click (or Reply, or Forward)

  • Never, ever reply to a spam message. This includes buying a product that is for sale or clicking the often-misunderstood "unsubscribe" link, which actually informs your spammer that you exist. If you can tell from the subject line that a message is spam, don't open it — delete it. Spam subject lines typically promise you a better sex life, a more youthful appearance, prescription drugs without a doctor's approval, love, thicker hair, or a better mortgage rate. They also use attention-demanding punctuation, such as exclamation marks or all caps.
  • Don't click any links in a spam email. Spammers often have multiple, unique pages on their sites. Often, when you click a URL in a spam message, this tells the spammer that you — and only you — received the message he or she sent. It's another way for the spammer to figure out you actually exist.
  • Don't forward an email from someone you don't know to a list of people. You remember those "forward this email to 20 of your friends" messages? They are perfect for spammers to harvest email addresses, even if the sender of the original email did not have this intent. These types of sign-and-forward emails often appear in the form of a petition — and they don't work.

Guard Your Email Address: Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe

  • Disguise your email address. Don't put your email address in plain text on your website. An effective way to trick the spiders that traverse the web to harvest email addresses is to disguise your email address by stripping out periods and "@" symbols. For example, "YOURNAME AT YAHOO DOT COM." You can also make the "@" an image, which will prevent crawlers from identifying it. You may also wish to disguise it in your signature file, in case your recipients forward your email.
  • Don't use your home or business email address when you register on a website or in a group. If you must sign up for services, request more information, or register for newspapers or domains, use a free email address from a site like Gmail or Yahoo to create an address especially for that purpose. This also goes for posting to the web in social media, a listserv, a newsgroup, a contact page for a website, or a resume that is submitted online. If you want to be even safer, you can use a modified version of your email address when signing up for most services, which will allow you to filter emails sent to that modified address. For instance, Gmail allows you to append a plus ("+") sign and any combination of characters after the initial part of your email address, and you'll still receive the emails. So if your email address is "john267@gmail.com," you'll still receive emails sent to "john267+newsletters@gmail.com." You could use a modified address like that when signing up for newsletters, for instance. If you start getting spam at the address, set up a filter to redirect messages sent to that address to your spam folder, and sign up for future emails with a slightly different modified address.
  • Before you join a list, make sure the list owner or web master will not sell your address. Check to see if you can opt out of receiving unsolicited email from the site where you're registering. If you are unsure about this, read the site's privacy statement.

Monitor Your Settings, Report Suspicious Behavior

  • Use a spam filter. A few free ones are SpamBayes for Windows or POPFile for both Windows and Mac. TechSoup also offers donated anti-spam software from partners such as Mailshell and Red Earth.
  • Make sure your privacy settings are set so you don't receive marketing from other sites in your AOL and Yahoo profiles. Many listservs use Yahoo lists as the list provider; you must unselect these pre-selected choices in your personal privacy settings.
  • If your organization has an IT department, forward it any spam that gets through. The IT staff may be able to tweak the filters to block similar emails in the future.

The following TechSoup readers contributed tips: Sunah Caroline Cherwin, Don Cameron, Alex Martin, and Lisa LaTorre. TechSoup Community hosts William Rodina, Jayne Cravens, Robert L. Weiner, and Christian Nielsen also made suggestions.

Image: Stop spam, Shutterstock