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September 20, 2006

How to protect yourself against email spam

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A recent study conducted by McAfee, Inc. shows that spammers are getting increasingly more cunning in their attempt to flood your inbox with harmful email messages. According to the report, last month saw a 72 percent increase in the number of domains registered for solely for spam purposes. That’s an alarming number.

McAfee Development Manager Guy Roberts:

"It’s a cat-and-mouse game where spammers try to change their URLs faster than the anti-spam companies can react. If it takes traditional blacklists 15 to 20 minutes to block a site, then that’s how fast the spammers need to change their URLs. Since domains cost only US$6 per registration, the spammer is spending less than US$100 for four hours of advertising."

Spending $100 for less than four hours of advertising may seem like a substantial number, but in the spamming world it’s not. Keep in mind that Jeremy Jaynes, the man who received a nine year sentence for the first-ever felony spamming conviction, was reported to have earned $750,000 a month for this trade. My trusty calculator tells me that equals out to $9 million a year. What’s a couple hundred dollars when you’re bringing in a movie star income?

The troubling part for users is that the more domains spammers open, and the faster they go, the more spam users are going to be met with. And the more domains and IPs get burned and blocklisted for innocent users who come later.

Today’s spammers are smart. They have to be in order to bypass today’s spam filters. It may take an almost impressive amount of work to be a successful spammer these days, but the work pays off. As Jeremy Jaynes showed us, spammers stand to make millions of dollars a year. As a result, Bigmouthmedia says the only way to deter spammers is with larger penalties.

“The lure for spammers is obvious. than just a temporary solution from big anti-spam companies. What we need is larger penalties, and bigger deterrents to decrease the potential spammers’ desire to annoy us every day.”

I couldn’t agree more, but in order to enforce larger penalties, we need stronger legislation, especially overseas. The United States celebrated its first felony spamming conviction with Jaynes, but too many others have receive mere slap-on-the-wrist penalties where spammers were forced to shell out trivial fines. This is not conducive to fighting the war against spam. Spam is a criminal act that costs companies millions of dollars of year. It’s time it be treated at such.

Here are some tips to help you protect your inbox against email spam:

  • Use email-software with built-in spam filtering
  • Be creative with your email address – An email address like 1a5tnam3@hotmail.com is harder to guess (and therefore spam) than lastname@hotmail.com. Use longer, multi-word email addresses that incorporate numbers and hyphens.
  • Create throw-a-away email addresses – Don’t use your primary email address when signing up for online offers or newsletters. Use emails that are easily disposable.
  • Learn to disguise your email address – Have you ever wondered why forum users often type their email address as “lastname AT domainame DOT com? It’s not because they’re obnoxious (well, mostly), it actually prevents automated services that troll forums and newsgroup from being able to steal your email address.
  • Disallow Images – Pictures in emails are often used as “beacons” to send information about you back to the sender. Disallow images coming from unknown senders.
  • Update your programs - Spammers are becoming smarter and more cunning every day. Keeping your spam filter up-to-date leaves you better prepared to fight against today’s spamming techniques.
  • Be Cautious – Keep an eye out for those little checkboxes that automatically add your email to promotional lists. Also, beware of offers including an “opt out” feature, spammers often use this to confirm your email address is valid and may guarantee you receive even more spam.

When you do receive spam messages, and you will, don’t open them. Many spammers are prudent analytics mavens and track their open rates to see which email addresses “worked”. Continuing to open spammy emails may actually increase the level of spam you see appearing in your inbox.

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