5 tips and techniques to combat spam

Many of us think of spam as an undesired consequence of being online, but due the relentless onslaught to which many of us are being subject, and the broad range of threats it can contain, we do have to be vigilant in how it is treated. This post offers five tips to combat spam.

Over the last few years, computer security has been steadily gaining prominence in the Caribbean. Many of us might attempt to implement measures to keep our information and computers safe online, but the threats are growing and getting more sophisticated. The focus therefore tends to be on viruses, Trojans, malware, etc., with relatively little attention given to spam. Security experts, such as Symantec and Kaspersky, currently indicate that spam accounts for at least 75% of all emails sent; and this figure is a substantial drop from as much as 90%, based on 2010 reports.

While we generally think of spam as a bother – unsolicited email that just clutters up our email account, it is also getting more sophisticated and more pervasive. In addition to email spam, spam is also found in other media, such as blogs, search engines and mobile text messaging. Further, email spam increasingly contains either viruses or worms that will compromise your PC if installed, or web links to questionable websites, that can result in a raft of security problems.

So what can you do to better protect yourself? Five suggestions are given below primarily for email spam.

1.  Install anti-spam email blockers and filters. To varying degrees most email applications offer some spam protection, via email blockers and filters. These facilities tend to place questionable messages in a “junk mail” folder, where you, as the user, can review them. Normally, users must activate and configure those filters, which is a relatively simple process.

It must be highlighted that most ISPs and email providers have implemented some form of anti-spam blocking for the benefit of their users, and to limit the amount of unwanted messages their servers have to handle. Hence some of the hassle of managing spam is often taken care of by the email provider.

2.  Take a closer look at the messages. Depending on the source of the spam, it might not automatically be sent to your junk mail folder. It might be from an email address you recognise or a sender that appears legitimate. In reviewing your messages, regardless of whether they are sent to your inbox or to junk mail, here are some things you can consider:

  • Is it an unexpected message, especially from friends or relatives?
  • Is the email address strange or complicated?
  • Is it an email requesting you to update an account?
  • Does the emails require you to open an attachment in order to read the message?
  • Does the email contain strange web links (and possibly little or no other text)?
  • Is the email an offers too good to be true? (A dead long lost uncle perhaps?)
  • Are there obvious misspellings and strange punctuation?

This list is by no means exhaustive, and by themselves do not automatically mean that an email is spam. However, should one or more of these points be present a healthy dose of scepticism is advised.

3.  Exercise care when sharing email addresses. Email harvesting has become rampant – from malware applications combing through your address book, to legitimate websites sharing customer information with third parties. Hence we could all benefit from exercising more discretion in deciding when to share our email address. For example, in emails that are being forwarded to a large number of recipients, addresses could be inserted in the “bcc” (blind carbon copy) field. Additionally, in social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, you could opt to keep parts of your profile, such as your email address, private, but they can be viewable by those in your group or directly connected to you, if desired.

4.  Alter how you display your email address. Many of the programmes that are used to harvest emails from forums, websites, etc., are able to recognise an address by the “@” sign, and to varying degrees, the dot extension. One way of thwarting this, is to spell out the symbols used in an email address, which would not be understood by robots. Hence an email address normally written “john.doe@test.yyy” could be displayed as, “john DOT doe (AT) test DOT yyy”. Alternatively, your address could be written in a graphic, such as a jpeg or png file:

5.  Just delete. Finally, due to the sheer number of email addresses that are being targeted, spammers rarely know for sure whether a particular email addresses is active. One of the key objectives of a spam message is to elicit a response from the recipient, to indicate whether a particular account is  legitimate and active. Hence if you suspect a message is spam, do not respond. Just delete the message or report it as spam through the channels provided by your email programme or application.

Spam image courtesy of programwitch, Flickr