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How Do I Stop Spam?

You can’t stop it, but you can take steps to avoid getting more.

Spam is inevitable; just don't ask for more.
Stop Spam!

Imagine a world without spam. What a nice, quiet place, right? An assortment of services would be more efficient and cost less.

Unfortunately, that utopia’s not to be. Spam exists and can’t be completely prevented.

But you can take steps to prevent getting spam — or at least prevent getting more spam.

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Stopping spam

You can’t stop spam. To reduce the amount of spam you’ll get in the future:

  • Do not respond to or act on spam.
  • Do not unsubscribe from spam.
  • Do not enable images on spam.
  • Don’t give your email address to the wrong person.
  • Don’t post your email address publicly.
  • Trim email before you forward it.
  • Avoid sending to “that friend” who’ll forward your email address on.

The spam folder means its working

I occasionally get questions from folks who complain about the massive amounts1 of spam they get. When I dig deeper, they’re complaining about the spam in their spam (or junk) folders.

Folks, that’s the system working as intended. Spam is automatically routed to the spam folder, and non-spam (sometimes referred to as “ham”) is delivered to your inbox.

Spam filters may make mistakes in one direction or another from time to time, but the goal is that all the spam you get lands in the spam folder where you never need to look at it, or at least not look at it very often.

There’s no way to stop spam. You can only deal with it in a way that makes it less of an issue when it arrives.

But there are steps you can take to avoid getting even more spam than you already do.

Preventing more spam

Many people unknowingly ask for spam in various ways. Each of those ways causes even more spam to head your way.

Do not respond to or act on spam

This might be the #1 way people ask for more spam. By responding to spam (even to complain), you’re telling the spammer that they’ve found a real live email address that someone reads. They’ll take that as a sign to send you more, not less, spam.

Clicking on a link in the spam can do exactly the same thing. Worse is making a purchase based on a spam message. Besides being a risk for so many other reasons (like fraud), it simply serves to tell the spammer “We got us a live one!”

Do not unsubscribe from spam

Spam often includes an unsubscribe link. Don’t click on it. You were never “subscribed” in the first place. The unsubscribe exists only to fool you into confirming to the spammer that you’re real, and that you read your email. Mark it as spam instead. (Only use the unsubscribe link to sever ties to emails you did subscribe to in the first place.)

Do not enable images on spam

The reason pictures are disabled by default on spam-filtered email, and often even on legitimate email by default, is that the mere act of displaying that image can tell a spammer they have a real email address.

Don’t give your email address to the wrong person

This is one reason many people have more than one email address or create one-time or “throw-away” email addresses.

Many companies share their email lists with others or even sell the list of their customer’s email addresses. Reputable companies do not, so keep shopping at Amazon and the like, but be careful when dealing with a company you’ve never dealt with before.

Consider creating and using a different email address for this purpose. Again, so-called “throw-away” email addresses are perfect for this, as you can simply stop paying attention to them if they start getting too much spam.

Don’t post your email address publicly

If your email address is visible on a webpage anyone can get to, then “anyone” includes spammers. They have been known to harvest email addresses from webpages on the assumption they are more likely to be real, active email addresses than simply guessing randomly (which they also do).

A good example that you can easily avoid is to note your email address within a comment you post on sites like Ask Leo!. While I will proactively remove those email addresses, not all sites do. The more you do so, the more likely spammers are to find your email address repeatedly and send even more spam your way.

It’s a little more difficult to control mailing lists with public online archives. If anyone can see the archives, and the archives include full email addresses, then spammers will be there as well. The best solution here is to perhaps use a dedicated email address for such a mailing list and abandon it if it starts getting too much spam.

Trim email before you forward

If you get an email you want to forward to someone else, consider trimming (deleting) the email addresses contained in the message you’re about to send. A forward usually includes the full email address of the original sender, as well as the email addresses to which it was sent. Sometimes those messages make it into the hands of spammers who harvest the information.

Not only will you get less spam, but it’s just good etiquette that results in an easier-to-read email and maintains the privacy of others.

Avoid sending to “that friend”

Along those same lines, if you have a friend who regularly forwards emails without trimming, think twice about sending them the latest joke or viral message. You can’t control what they do (no matter how much you might cajole them), but you can keep your email address out of the loop by not starting the chain.

Starting over

One approach some people take to dealing with spam is to start over: to create and switch to a completely new email address.

While that attempt is ultimately doomed — eventually every email address will get spam — it’s a perfect opportunity to ensure you’re taking the steps above religiously. This will at least reduce the amount of spam the new account gets or at least delay the arrival of the eventual spam tidal wave.

Do this

Understand that spam is inevitable, but take the steps above to avoid “asking” for more.

Choose an email provider with a good spam filter and learn to use it. When spam arrives in your inbox, mark it as spam and move on.

Here’s one place you can use that email address safely, though: Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

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Footnotes & References

1: Different people have different definitions of “massive” as well. I routinely get around 100 spam messages per day, with occasional peaks at well over 300. Some consider that massive. I consider it routine.

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