The first recorded instance of an unsolicited electronic message was a telegram in 1864 to British politicians, advertising a dentistry shop. Spam, unwanted or unsolicited email, is something we all have to contend with to this day and will for the foreseeable future. It is estimated that about 50 percent or more of all email today is spam. That is down from over 80 percent a few years ago. Understanding the nature of spam is key to getting an upper hand on managing this beast.
Types of Unwanted email
The most effective measures to control spam vary among the types and sources of email, so it is important to identify them. Much of spam comes from unscrupulous sources, such as hijacked computers that have become robots for sending spam and viruses. Some of these emails are used to infect even more computers to send even more spam. Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date so you don't become part of the problem.
Other unwanted email is legitimate. These include advertisers that you may have authorized to receive email from and are compliant with the law in their methods. Marking these as spam in your spam filter is not very effective and can reduce its effectiveness. If it is a message from Target or Home Depot, you may have authorized the sender to email you, even if inadvertently.
In many cases, the type of spam can be easily identified. For example, unexpected email that claims you won the lottery, or offers something too good to be true, is almost certainly spam. In other cases, email from familiar vendors such as Fred Meyer, can be identified by its familiar look and content, even if it is unwanted. In any case, do not rely on the sender email address for evidence of any kind as it can be easily forged or "spoofed".
Some email can have the look and feel of legitimacy, even having a company logo, and still be forged. Many of these will entice you to click on a link to update your password or give some other private information which legitimate companies never do. To get a better identification of these, examining the hidden email header records will usually do.
Gaining access to and examining the email header is an area where many fear to tread. But it has tracking information, much like a package sent through the mail, that can identify every place the email was, including its source. This can usually provide a definitive answer of whether the email is legitimate, even when all other efforts have failed. If the geek in you is up to the challenge, there are many sources on Internet to guide you through finding them, depending on your email program and version.
As spam mitigation measures improve, so does the ability of spam to evade filters. Like anti-virus software that has to reactively combat new computer viruses, so do spam filters have to change their tactics. For example, a few years ago, spammers found a way around spam filters by sending image email rather than text, as spam filters were largely text based. In time, spam filters were upgraded to convert images to text for effective evaluation and classification.
Most people do not see the large volume of spam that is blocked on email servers so they don't get a sense for how well it is already doing its job. As spammers' techniques change, some of their unwanted email sometimes gets through. These are the ones that get your attention. And sometimes mine, when I am called on to help in controlling this menace. Most of the time, these emails will stop on their own after a short time, when spam filters on the email servers catch up.
Most spam is blocked by email servers at your provider so you don't even see it. This prevents delivery of the email. This method is most effective for email from unscrupulous sources. Any spam mitigation efforts built in to your email program, such as Outlook or Thunderbird, are less effective as it targets email that has already been accepted for delivery from the spammer.
Unwanted email from legitimate sources such as Walmart, Amazon and other vendors, is not effectively blocked by spam filters, neither should it be, as it is a matter of preference whether one should receive it. For these, check the bottom of the page for a link to unsubscribe. It is required by law for the sender to honor opt-out, unsubscribe requests promptly. Click on this link and fill out the required information.
There are a number of things you can do to reduce unwanted email. First, when filling out forms, check to see if you are agreeing to receive email that you don't want before submitting, especially if you are signing up for free stuff. Avoid posting your email address to public forums and social media. The addresses can be harvested by spammers. Never respond to unwanted email from unscrupulous sources. It can be used to verify your email address. Don't make your user name the same as your email address if possible. For web based email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook.com, use their system to block and report spam. Also, make sure you use a unique password for your email accounts as any other site that has your password might be hacked and your email account may be used for spamming.
Spam is something that we can expect, as long as we receive email. There is no way to effectively block all spam. We can only decide how much to tolerate. And remember, for every spam email we get, there is probably at least one more that we never see.
-2016 Sutinen Consulting