About Internet Spam and Junk Email

Fighting email spam, like countering any illegitimate activity, is a never ending struggle. You devise a plan to stop junk email and there is a counter response. But taking low effort steps that make spammers actions inadequate or tough puts you at an advantage.

If a spammer had to collect email addresses manually and send ads one at a time, the entire venture would not be worth his trouble. Unfortunately, automation gives him a great advantage.

Since email spam is made possible by programs, other programs such as antispam software can fight back on a like for like basis. Before learning how to use an email spam filter and antispam software, it is helpful to know how spammers do what they do and what basic actions a user can take to counteract them.

One of the most effective tools spammers have are spambots which are programs that automatically browse websites looking for email addresses. Any email addresses found are harvested and stored into large lists. The lists are then either used directly for spam marketing purposes or are sold on to other spammers. In fact, you may have even received spam emails offering to sell CD's with millions of email addresses on them.

Although it not possible to foil spambots completely, there are a few useful techniques that can be used to confuse them.

Spam Redirect

Obviously, if you do not reveal an email address, then there is nothing for the spambots to harvest. However, in a time when blogs, forums and other public sites are heavily used, and most insisting that you provide an email address in order to post or read, it is hard to avoid.

So for those public venues, determine and use an address where you plan to get no personal email. After responding to the sign up confirmation you do not have to care what goes there. Keep another address for personal use and only give it to trusted individuals and vendors.

A word of caution: Hotmail, Yahoo and other large providers have frequently been used for this purpose. Some sites are wise to this and will let addresses with @hotmail.com, for instance. As there are literally dozens of free email providers, you do not have to use the same one every time.

Email Disguise

Spambots are intelligent, but they're not human. They cannot make refined distinctions or inferences unless they are programmed to do so. Often, disguising a publicly visible email address is sufficient to cause the spambot to ignore you. They are frequently programmed to look for character strings like John_Doe@somedomain.com. Programs only do what they're instructed, so even a simple change such as John_Doe_AT_NOSPAMsomedomain.com is sufficient to fool them.

Even if your disguised email address is still harvested, at minimum the address has to be 'scrubbed' in order to be used. The routines needed for Scrubbing are even harder to write than spambots because there are so many possible variations. NO_SPAM, NOSPAM, no*spam and many that are much more clever. At the end of the day, a little creativity on the part of the user goes a long way! Those variations are usually easy for humans to decipher, but again programs can only do what they are instructed to do.

There are some potential drawbacks to this method. In the above example, humans have to strip out the extra letters and insert the @-sign. However, they sometimes fail to do this out of failure to understand the need to, or because they simply hit Reply To. Also, since many email confirmation systems are themselves automated (by software, naturally), they too will fail to deliver to the desired address.

A variation on the technique can be used not only by web site designers but to a certain extent, users as well. You can usually configure your email account to make the receiver see your email address as anything you wish, regardless of the actual address. After all, that is how spammers often disguise themselves, too.

Once you make the effort to create an email account and advertise it to your friends, business associates and trusted vendors changing or disguising it can be undesirable. That puts you in the position of making high cost efforts for low reward which is exactly the role you want the spammer to be in, not you.

Email Spam Filter

An email spam filter uses filters which examine every email before it is delivered and apply complex algorithms to determine whether one is junk or not. The email spam filter is configurable so that email from senders listed in your address book pass through to your Inbox, with others directed to a Junk folder.

Though imperfect, the algorithms in antispam software are reviewed often by email providers and evolve to capture more junk and fewer valid messages. When reviewing the junk mail folder, some antispam software allows you to specify whether it guessed correctly or not. Your answers then allow the algorithms to improve themselves to make better guesses.

Eventually, even determined spammers get weary of programming variations to circumvent the hurdles thrown in their way, deciding that the effort is not worth the return. The users ultimate aims are to stop junk email and to make the cost to the spammer much higher than the reward whilst making the cost to the user low and the reward high.