How to Stop Spam for free

Don’t allow unwanted junk mail to waste your time!

Spam reported to SpamCop in the last year

^ Spams reported per second, in the last year

Have you ever gone on holiday and left your e-mail for a week, only to find a hundred unwanted spam messages sitting in your inbox on your return? Many people have. Spam - unsolicited commercial email - has got to be the single biggest annoyance on the Internet. In the last year, virtually a billion spam messages (999,518,222) have been reported to SpamCop, one of the Internet’s major spam-monitoring services. That’s an average of over 31 spam messagesper second.

Not only is spam annoying for people at home, spam is a costly headache for businesses, wasting thousands of hours of employees’ time.One FTSE-100 company in the UK estimated dealing with unnecessary e-mail (including spam) costs 39 million pounds a year.

Where does all this spam come from?

Some spam comes from companies you gave your e-mail address to once, then spam you in perpetuity. But the bulk of spam comes from one source: botnets. What’s a botnet? The word comes from “NETwork of roBOTS”. Picture this: an army of tens of thousands - sometimes hundreds of thousands - of infected Windows PCs that are remote-controlled via the Internet. And the 99.999% of the problem is with Windows, notApple Macs or Linux systems. Botnets mostly consist of unguarded home PCs that have been stealthily infected, and whose owners are probably completely unaware.

This means that right now, millions of ordinary people’s home computers around the world are being remote-controlled by gangs of organised criminals, many of whom live in Russia and the far east. Spammers pay them to hire out time on these botnets, so they can send spam to millions of people. This two-minute video from the BBC demonstrates this. It’s part of a programme about high-tech crime and it shows a botnet of 22,000 home computers being used to flood e-mail inboxes with spam:

So what can we do about it?

There are two main approaches to the problem of spam: prevention (avoid spam in the first place) and thecure (whereyou already have a spam problem: how todeal with spam and cut down on the amount of spam you get). These two approaches are not mutually exclusive - you can do both. On this page, I’m going to deal with the latter approach.

How to stop spam once and for all:

Option 1: Shut down the botnets

Stop spam at source, where it’s sent. If we could shut down the botnets, we’d put a huge dent in the world’s spam problem. This isn’t just theory - the sudden dip in the graph at the top of this page was after a major botnet got shut down when police arrested its owners.

Apart from the police catching botnet owners, another way to stop them would be to make and release “good” worm viruses to seek out vulnerable or infected Windows PCs and automatically fix and protect them, so they don’t become part of a botnet. I saidWindows PCs, because this isn’t a big problem for Apple Macs or Linux systems.

In fact, this idea has been done before; where one worm was programed to remove other malicious worms from a computer. But deliberately writing or releasing viruses is illegal in many countries. That and the fact that most people rightly don’t like the sound of something out of their control invisibly messing with their machine.

Or you could make ISPs (Internet Service Providers) automatically disconnect and spam-blacklist any home computer as soon as it’s seen to be sending spam. Effective? Yes, if it could be universally implemented. At least until spammers found ways tocircumventit. Also, most people would think it grossly unfair - imagine someone steals your car and is seen speeding on a motorway, butyou’rethe one who gets the fine. Somehow you just know Americans would quickly bury this idea underclass-action lawsuits…

The problem with technology

You see, imposed technical solutions from above generally don’t work well in the real world. At least not beyond big organisations with IT departments who can centrally manage all their computers. So if you’ve got a spam problem at home, or you’re a small business owner, YOU are the one who has to do something about it. Which leads to the question: what can you practically do to stop spam, preferably for free?

Option 2: Change your e-mail address

If you’re getting hundreds or even thousands of spams a month, and your current e-mail address isn’t important to you, then just delete the e-mail address entirely. Obviously this isn’t an option if it’s the e-mail address on your business card, or if you’ve had the address for years and don’t want to go through the hassle of telling everyone you know that you’ve changed your address.

But if not, just get a new free email address e.g. fromYahoo! mail.NB: many free email providers, including Hotmail (which I wouldn’t recommend, along with Gmail) embed their own adverts to subsidise their service. You get the level of service you pay for!

IMPORTANT:when you do this, when you create a new e-mail address, follow the advice in the other part of this guide: How to avoid getting spam in the first place. Go read it, BEFORE you start getting spammed again on the new address!

If you have your own domain/website:

If you own a website, you can simply create a new email accounts or forwarding address(alias), using your website’s control panel - or ask your webmaster to do it. One thing: don’t set up a ‘catch-all’ email address, one that accepts all e-mail sent to anything@your-domain.com. Also, try to avoid one-word names like jim@your-domain.com. At least add your last initial e.g. jim_b@…Otherwise you leave yourself open tospammer dictionary attacks:where they send millions of test spams to randomlygenerated names at your domain until something gets through to you.

Remember:when you change your address, read How to avoid getting spam in the first place

Option 3: Get a spam filter

There are two ways of using spam filters: 1) run a spam filtering program on your own PC, or 2) sign up to an on-line spam filtering service.

Spam filtering programs

One of the best spam filter application I know of is Mail Washer. It’s free, and there’s a Pro version for $39.95 if you want to filter more than one e-mail address (useful if you’re a small business).

To quote its website:MailWasher can be thought of as a “first line of defence” which can weed out junk, large wasteful attachments, and potentially harmful viruses. Disclosure: some of my old clients have used MailWasher on their PCs, though I haven’t personally (I have a Mac, and there’s no Mac version).
MailWasher comes highly recommended - and the Pro version is worth it, if you get 10+ spams a day and/or have multiple e-mail addresses.

Online spam filtering services

These are specialist companies who have powerful smart computers (servers) that continually check your existing e-mail account, and identify and quarantine or remove any spam, before you even check your mail. Thus keeping spam, and viruses, away from you. There are several major providers of such services, for example Ironport. But most of them are geared at medium to large enterprises.

For home and small to medium-sized business use, I recommend SpamCop’s email system for individuals. It’s easy to use and good at what it does, because SpamCop are one of the Internet’s major spam-monitoring services. They were established in 1998, and they’re good at identifying spam!

The service costs$30 per year, and is worth it if you get thousands of spam or viruses per month, because you’re letting THEIR servers take the strain of spam filtering, not your own, as with MailWasher.
Disclosure: I usedSpamCop’s email system for individualsfor several years. They’re not paying me to say that - they don’t even have an affiliate program. If you have a serious spam problem, check them out.

Tell your friends

Your friends and contacts can inadvertently,or even deliberately, cause you to get spammed. Their PC might getinfected bya virus, which automatically mails a copy of itself to you. Or your friends could - as a joke - sign you uptounwanted email newsletters. If they’re in business theymight start sending you their own newsletters out of the blue. That last one has happened to me…

Ask them if they use some form of anti-virus software (unless of course they use anApple Mac or Linux computer so are automatically immune to 99.999% of virues). Tell themnot to sign up your email address for anything silly without your permission. And if they start sending you unwanted adverts send them a quick note saying it’s not appreciated, with a link to this page, and/or www.spambusters.org.

PART 2: What (not) to do with the spam in your Inbox

If you don’t want to use spam filters - maybe you only get one or two spams a day - how should you handle spam that gets through to your inbox?

Don’t even open email that looks like spam

Read the subject line and check the message sender. If they look strange, unexpected, or it’s clearly an unwanted advert, delete the message.

Because when you open a fancy-looking HTML-based message, your computer will access the Internet to display any external images or scripts (AKA web bugs or beacons) embedded in the message. Marketers exploit this to measure how many people actually read their newsletters. Fortunately many e-mail programs - like Thunderbird, Apple Mail and some webmail systems - get around this by blocking third-party images by default, or have an option to do so.

Unscrupulous marketers willlog the fact you read the e-mail, that your email address is confirmed as working. Then they sellyour address as part of a list of confirmed email addresses. As mentioned in the video earlier on this page, spammers buy these lists of confirmed e-mail addresses, then send spam to them. Meaning thatif you even read certain spam, you can end up witheven more spam in future.

Just delete it if it looks like spam, or disconnect from the Internet before you read it.Of course even that won’t help you if the e-mail contains a virus which triggers upon opening the message - to avoid that problem,never use Outlook Express to read your mail. Get another e-mail program, like Thunderbird(it’s free and my parents use it) or Eudora.

If you do read it, don’t reply to spam

Though it might make you feel better, there’s no point complaining to most spammers, unless they’re just an irresponsible business that you really HAVE been in contact with before. Otherwise, they’ll probably never even see your complaint. From: and Reply to: addresses are easy to fake in e-mail messages. Replying would be just a waste of your time. And if they haven’t faked the reply address, they might even take your reply and automatically register that your address works, so they can sell on your e-mail address - see the above heading.

Forget unsubscribing

It’s OK to unsubscribe from marketing e-mails sent by a reputable company you’ve previously given your address to. Just don’t try to unsubscribefrom an email from some strange source, that you don’t know how you came to receive. See the previous heading - replying meansyou’ll just geteven more spamin future.

Report them to the authorities

If you’re really fed up and in a militant mood, you can slow spammers down by blacklisting them. It’s not that difficult - just submit a copy of their spam to the Internet’s anti-spam authorities, such asSpamCopwho maintain spam blacklists. Once small-scale spammers are blacklisted, they won’t be able to annoy more people with their junk e-mail - because anyone who uses spam filters will automatically delete their messages before they even arrive. At least, until the spammers change ISPs…

Unfortunately, blacklisting won’t stop spammers who use large botnets (see the video earlier on this page). Big spammers don’t care if they suddenly lose a few hundred blacklisted PCs, when they have 50,000 more computers at their command. But in a small way you’ll be helping to make the Internet a better place.

Whatever you do, NEVER EVER, EVER buy anything advertised in spam

Remember, the marketers and organised criminals who send out unsolicited spam email do it for profit. They buy lists of e-mail addresses, but it costs them nothing to send each e-mail message because botnets to do their dirty work. Which means they can still make money even if only 1 person in a million buys from them. If you happen to bethat one person, I have this message for you:

“Hey, you with the small penis - don’t do that!” Buy what they’re selling and you only encourage them to inflict more spam on the rest of us.

Don’t buy from spam, especially if ironically it’s selling software promising to block spam. Rule #1: Spammers lie. Rule #2: If a spammer seems to be telling the truth, see Rule #1.

To summarise:

  • Change your e-mail address if you’re up to your neck in spam.
  • If that isn’t practical, use spam filters, such asSpamCop’s.
  • Don’t waste your time reading e-mail if it’s obviously spam
  • Don’t reply to spam from unknown source; NEVER buy anything from spam.
  • Help your friends and business contacts by sending them a link to this page.
  • Read the next part on How to avoid spam

Do you have any stories about spam and what you did about it? Do you use a different spam filter?