How to Prevent Spam Email

Your entire email Inbox is full of new messages, none of which are from your friends. When you click on them you find that the subject lines are often misleading, and you find advertisements or misleading information to get you to click links to websites. Worse, sometimes you find requests for credit card information or eBay passwords which look genuine, but are in fact efforts to steal your personal financial information. What can you do?

What Is Spam Email

Spam email is unsolicited email, usually with a commercial focus. Other names for spam include "Unsolicited Commercial Email" (UCE) or and "Unsolicited Bulk Email" (UBE). Spammers will send thousands, and in some cases millions, of emails to try to lure people into buying their products, clicking on affiliate links or, worst of all, to try to steal confidential personal and financial information from unwitting recipients.

To be spam, an email message must be unsolicited. Sometimes people forget that they have signed up for information from particular merchants, or joined particular mailing lists, and confuse the emails they receive with spam. If you asked for it, it isn't spam.

Why Do I Get Spam?

Pretty much every person who uses an email address for any significant amount of time will receive spam email. The longer you maintain a particular email address the more spam you are likely to receive. Spammers create lists of email addresses by collecting them from websites, buying them from other businesses, and even by guessing possible names on popular email hosts such as Yahoo! mail and Google mail. It is possible to buy large email lists for relatively small amounts of money. Once you start receiving spam from a particular email address, it is effectively impossible to remove your name from the lists.

If you purchase a product in response to a spam ad, you will almost certainly find that you are relentlessly targeted by the spammer who sent you that ad, and your contact information may be sold to other spammers who will be every bit as relentless in their targeting of you.

Can I Get Off Spam Mailing Lists?

There are two types of commercial email that you will receive: commercial email from legitimate businesses, and commercial email from true spammers. Occasionally a legitimate business will be tricked into purchasing an email list from an unscrupulous person, and may send you an advertisement that you do not want. However, every responsible business that sends bulk email also makes it easy to unsubscribe, usually through a link contained within the email.

Spammers often include a fake "unsubscribe" link in their email, but they typically use that link to verify that your email account works as opposed to actually removing you from the account. Unless you are absolutely sure that the email is from a legitimate business, or is for emails or a newsletter to which you subscribed, you should not use the unsubscribe feature.

Unfortunately, there tend to be a lot more illegitimate spammers than legitimate, responsible bulk emailers. This means that even if you unsubscribe from all of the commercial email you at one time invited, you are likely to continue to receive increasing quantities of spam.

With spam, as the saying goes, the best offense is a good defense. Be vigilant about your email address, avoid giving it to people or businesses you don't know, and don't let anybody post it on a website. Some people create "throw away" email accounts on free email services such as Google Mail, Yahoo! mail or Outlook, so that they have an address they can give out freely without worrying about getting spam in their real email account. Once the throw away account starts to receive spam, they switch to a new throw-away account. Some people even use different email addresses for every transaction they make online, save for communication with family and friends, so they can figure out exactly who is responsible when they start to receive spam.

How Do I Get Rid Of Spam?

The best way to deal with spam is through technology: to use a good spam filter, software that evaluates incoming email to try to determine if it is spam. A spam filter may be server side, screening for bulk email before it gets into your inbox, or client side, software that runs on your computer and checks every email that you download to see if it is spam. Most webmail services now offer some level of email filtering to all of their clients, sometimes with better filtering offered to paid subscribers. Email hosts normally also include a feature that allows you to report spam that gets through the filter, and use reports to improve the filter.

Unfortunately, the spammers invest a great deal of money and effort to defeat spam filters. Also, any spam filter that you use will eventually label some genuine emails as spam, while missing some (and in some cases most) of your actual unsolicited email. While the technology behind filtering continues to improve, it is a constant battle to keep up with the bad guys.

It used to be that you could report spam to the web host where the spam originated, sometimes resulting in the spammer's site being shut down. Unfortunately, spammers now typically fake the information in the email header which might otherwise pinpoint their identity, and usually operate from servers which don't entertain complaints from recipients of spam.

How Do I Shield My Children From Spam?

If your children have email accounts, it is inevitable that they will become the targets of spam. Spammers often try to sell products that are completely inappropriate for children, and spam emails often include very graphic pictures from adult websites. There are some software companies which produce filters to keep inappropriate Internet content from children, and if used they may offer some automatic filtering of such content from your children's email (particularly if it is web-based mail).

The best approach to keeping this garbage out of your children's email account is to set up their email so that they can only receive mail from known individuals. That is, you can set up their email on a service which allows you to set up a list of preferred email addresses, while blocking all email from any other address. That way, once approved, your children's friends and family can send them email, but spammers cannot.

Who Are The People Behind Spam?

A very large amount of spam email is sent by a small number of companies that send hundreds of millions of unsolicited commercial emails to people around the world. Some of these companies are set up in nations that do not actively regulate or enforce their laws relating to this type of activity, meaning that it is very difficult to shut them down. Few of these companies respect the laws regulating commercial email.

What Is The Government Doing About This Problem?

The United States Government passed the so-called "CAN-SPAM" Act, a law that preempted state laws which regulated spamming, and created a new national standard. Unfortunately, on the whole the law has not had a significant impact on spamming activity. Critics of the law believe that it also interferes unduly with state efforts to limit spamming.

The government has successfully prosecuted several spammers for unlawful email practices, and conviction may result in prison terms and enormous fines. However, few spammers are actually pursued and prosecuted, spammers operating from overseas are not afraid of prosecution, and the volume of spam email has increased significantly since the law went into effect.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jul 21, 2016.