Spam: How to avoid spam in the first place

Spam prevention is better than the cure

What is spam? It’s e-mail you don’t want and didn’t ask for, and it’s a big problem on the Internet (for more details, see Spam: Stop Spam for free). What is spam prevention? It means trying to avoid getting spammed in the first place. That’s right, if you’re careful and follow the spam-avoidance steps on this page, you’ll drastically reduce your chances of ever getting spam.

So without further ado, here are the key steps you can take to avoid spam before you start getting it:

Be careful to whom you give your email address

Don’t give out your address to anyone you don’t trust. Because they can’t spam you if they don’t know your address, right? (Well, actually there areways round that, more on that later). Now obviously this isn’t going to work if you’re a social networking butterfly or otherwise in contact with the public at large - e.g. you’re self-employed. If you do make your address public; get yourselves spam filters. But still read the rest of this article.

Ask them “What will you do with my e-mail address?”

When was the last time you did any of these things: responded to a marketing survey; attended a conference; booked a flight, train or coach trip; signed up to a website; filled in a guestbook; commented on a blog; or bought anything online? What do they have in common? Forms. Whenever you’re given a form to fill in-whether on paper or on computer - think twice. Why do they want your email address? Do you really want to receive email from them?

Check the website’s Privacy Policy, or ask the person who gave you the form, whether they’re going to sell or share your email address with a third party.You could be letting yourself in for a deluge of spam. Your wasted time is worth more than a small discount or whatever they’re offering in return for your address!

“I can’t be bothered / I just want to get their cool free service”

Fair enough, I can see why you wouldn’t want to wade through pages of legalese called “Terms of Use” or “Privacy Policy”. Just assume the worst then; assume that they will spam you or sell on your personal details, unless they say they won’t in simple English below the form.

If youtrust them not to sell your email address, then fine. If you’re not sure, give them a throwaway e-mail like a free Mailinator address, or at least make sure the e-mail address you give them is protected by a spam filter. But if you don’t see why they should need your email address, then refuse to fill in your email address. Make one up if you really have to e.g. nospam@example.com. (Don’t put the word “spam” or “nospam” in your made-up address you give them, some websites have got smart to that and will say “sorry that’s not a real address, try again”.)

Don’t put your email address just anywhere

If you publish your email address on a website, you probably will get spammed through it sooner or later, especially if that site is popular. In my role as a web designer, I’ve seen spam start coming in within a week of launching a new website.

How is that possible? One reason is because spammers use harvester computer programs (called harvester bots or spam spiders). These bots automatically scan websites, indiscriminately collecting any email addresses they can recognise, then following any links to other websites and repeating the process. The upshot is, a spammer can collect tens of thousands of addresses overnight.

But you can stop these automatic bots getting to you! How? By camouflaging your e-mail address if you publish it, so that bots can’t read it, but humans can - so ordinary people can still contact you. How? See below…

On non-commercial websites where you’re posting a message at a forum, it has become common practice amongst the more cautious people to spell out your address in words (”at instead of @, like this: yourname AT companyname DOT com). I don’t personally do this, partly because it looks clumsy, and partly because if enough people start doing it, spammers will just adapt their harvester bots to be able to read these types of e-mail addresses and collect them.

What to do if you have a website

  1. Don’t remove your email address altogether; that might harm your site’s credibility and would make it difficult for customers to contact you. The trick is not to write your address directly into the text of your website. Instead use contact forms and…
  2. …Install an email link obsfucator to scramble and disguise your e-mail address on your website. E-mail obsfucators work by scrambling your e-mail address in a way that people can see it perfectly, but harvester bots cannot.
    I used to recommend an e-mail obsfucator called Master Spambot Buster, but it’s not free any more and there are plenty of other free solutions if you search the Internet. Or just view the source of this web page and copy my ownJavaScripte-mail obsfucator - just change the domain setting and use it on your own site. If you do use it I’d appreciate an e-mail to say thanks and to tell me about your site!
  3. Now replace all the links to your email address with the scrambled versionfrom the obsfucator in the above step. Change the wording of the links to a phrase like click here to email me/us; or a small image/button; or a pictorial version of your email address. Again, you can view source and see how I do this on the Contact link.
  4. Put a contact form onto your sitealong with your disguised e-mail address, or instead of it so visitors can send messages to you. Make sure the contact form has spam protection measures like a CAPTCHA image - those blurry numbers and letters you may have seen on comment forms on other sites. If you don’t, you leave the form open to comment bots which scour the web and spam your site with comments selling fake viagra etc. Seriously, that happened to one of my clients. If you need a hand setting up forms on your site simply but professionally, Wufoo forms come recommended.
  5. Don’t set up a ‘catch-all’ email address. It leaves you open to spammers’ dictionary attacks: where they send spam to semi-randomly generated names at your domain until something gets through to you. Instead only create the email addresses you’re going to use.

If the above seems impractical for you, then you’d better prepare yourselves to stop spam: get a proper anti spam filter.

Tip for computer-savvy people: Multiple addresses

Get a second throwaway free email address e.g. from Yahoo! mail or My Own Email. NOTE: many free email providers including Hotmail send you their own adverts to subsidise their service. You get the level of service you pay for!

Website owners can simply setup extra email accounts or forwarding addresses (aliases). Use your website’s control panel or ask your webmaster to do it.

Now give one address out to friends, family and trusted contacts. Use a second address for one-off transactions like shopping, booking flights and hotels. Get a third for more frivolous things like surveys and polls, message boards, newsgroups, chat forums, IRC/instant messaging and online games. That way, when one of your sideline email addresses gets hit by spam stop using it, delete it and get a new one.

Tell your friends

Your friends and contacts can inadvertently, or even deliberately, cause you to get spammed. Their computers may get infected by a virus. As a joke they could sign you up to unwanted email newsletters. When they start a new business they might send you blatant adverts out of the blue - that’s happened to me before…

Ask your friends they use some form of anti-virus software (unless they use an Apple Mac or Linux computer so are immune to 99.999% of virues). Tell them not to sign up your email address for anything silly. And if they send you adverts send them a note saying why spam is bad and how they shoud market responsibly.

And why not send them a copy of this page? (Hint, hint).