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Friday, February 15, 2008

What is Spam & What Does Spam Stand For - Tips to Avoid Email Spam

I find a lot of people asking me questions like "What is spam?" "What does spam stand for?" In this article, I'm going to explain the term spam where it comes from (what it stands for) and give you a few tips to avoid email spam.

Do you hate spam? I’m not talking about the food, but the seemingly endless stream of annoying commercial emails that flood most people’s inboxes. The content of the messages range from mortgage rates to enlarging various body parts, to pornography, and their numbers grow every day — up to 500 percent in the eighteen months prior to March, 2003. As of April, 2004, over eighty percent of all email was spam. Since then, it's risen as high as 95%!

Spam is named after a classic skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus, which took place in a diner where everything on the menu had spam in it. During the whole skit, a chorus of vikings keeps chanting a song about spam, drowning out conversations.

Yes, it's a little random (that's Monty Python for you) but it's very funny. Years later, the skit reminded someone of how email in your inbox can get lost in all of the junk mail (the conversation gets drowned out by "Spam! Spam! Spam!"), so they started calling junk email "spam" and the name stuck.

It can be hard to avoid getting your email address on somebody’s list. It’s not uncommon for many people to receive 50 to 100 pieces of spam in a single day -- some people get hundreds a day! -- and the problem is growing worse.

Fortunately there are ways for individuals to reduce the amount of spam they get. Here are a few good tips:

  • Never try to unsubscribe or ask to be removed. Those emails may include a link or a reply address to unsubscribe, but 95% either simply don’t work, or you confirm to the spammers that they have a live one.

  • Never order anything advertised in spam, visit the website, or in any way respond to the ad. Every order or inquiry encourages the spammers to send thousands of more ads.

  • Try to avoid entering your email address on dubious websites as much as possible, and if you do, consider getting a second email account with Yahoo mail or a similar service and enter that address instead of your main email. Most websites offering contests, joke lists, free greeting cards, etc. harvest and sell your email address.

  • Never sign an online guestbook. As an experiment a while back, I created a new email address and entered it on about five guestbooks. Within 24 hours I was getting spam, and it grew to dozens a day within a week.

  • Try to avoid opening an unsolicited ad while connected to the internet -- this can alert spammers that they have a live address, so if your email application has a “work offline” option, often found in the file menu, select it before opening suspect emails, or disconnect from the internet entirely.
    If you use a web-based email service like Yahoo Mail, check your mail options for a setting to turn off graphics in emails, or to display mail in plain text only. This keeps the spammers from knowing you've opened the message.

  • Avoid forwarding emails to large numbers of people: Not everyone realizes that when you forward a message, the email addresses of everyone who receives the message is visible to every person who reads it.

    If any of the recipients is a spammer, or if one of a friend's computer is infected by certain viruses, they can harvest all of those addresses, including yours.

    If you do send an email to multiple recipients you can avoid revealing email addresses by entering addresses in the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) area instead of To or CC — this will hide the list of addresses from everyone else.

    You should also copy and paste just the message into a new message window rather than hitting the forward button — this trims the message down and protects the privacy of others.
As for dealing with the spam you already receive, most email programs allow you to create “filters” or “rules” that move incoming email into a specified folder or even right into the trash.

Setting filters up can be complicated, but the newer versions of many email programs, including Mozilla Thunderbird and Mac OS X Mail make it much easier. The programs have a free spam blocker built right in, and recognize patterns in spam, and use your address book as a white list of legit senders.

Any spam that shows up in your inbox can be marked (and automatically deleted) with a click, and the more spam you mark, the better the program gets at automatically taking care of them so you end up seeing a lot less junk than you used to.

Many internet providers also provide a free spam blocker which filters email before it gets to your computer. The problem with this is that they often block legitimate mail and you may never know about it. Because of this, I recommend using filtering software on your own computer, such as the above mentioned programs.

Ultimately, spam is a fact of modern life, and isn't entirely avoidable. If your current email address is about to collapse from the amount of spam you get, you might be forced to get a new one. After that, if you follow the tips above, you'll have a good chance of keeping it under control.

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