What’s the only thing worse than junk mail in your mailbox? Junk mail in your inbox. That’s not-so-affectionately known as spam, of course, and many users face a maddening daily deluge of it.
This poses any number of problems, not the least of which is the hassle of clearing out all that junk every day so you can focus on the email that’s important. But spam can also pose a security risk, as it often comes laden with spyware or viruses and frequently takes the form of phishing messages that can lead to identity theft.
How can up your antispam game? What are the best ways to both reduce the flow of spam and protect yourself against it at the same time? Start by following these four tips.
1. Get Proactive
The first, best spam filter method is to create a second email address you can use for various non-essential online activities. Imagine, for example, installing a second physical mailbox next to your current one, then telling the mailman to put all the ads, catalogs, and newsletters into that second box. A secondary email account won’t necessarily lower your current level of spam, but it will help keep it from growing. That’s because you’ll use that email address when you sign up for things like newsletters and message boards. Your primary email address should be reserved for friends, family members, co-workers, and important personal services like banking and shopping. For everything else, you’ll now use your secondary address.
2. Get Reactive
What about all the newsletters, store promos, and other junk currently invading your primary inbox? It’s time for some tough love: You probably signed up (that is, opted in) for most of that stuff, so it’s up to you to unsubscribe. In other words, now you’re the anti-spam filter. Don’t think you have to tackle this all at once, though. My advice: Do five per day. Open up five pieces of opt-in junk, scroll down to the bottom, and look for an “Unsubscribe” link. Click it, then follow the instructions to stop the spam. Spend a week or two on this five-a-day program and you should see a hefty reduction in unwanted mail.
3. Use Built-in Blockers
Spam filtering requires different methods depending on what kind of email service you use. For example, if you typically get your messages by opening a Web browser and then signing into, say, a Gmail or Yahoo account, you’ve already got some pretty decent spam-filtering tools at your disposal. Indeed, these Web-mail services have built-in tools designed to keep the really bad junk at bay. However, if some spam gets through to your inbox, as it invariably will, all you have to do is click Report Spam (Gmail) or Spam (Yahoo) to banish that message - and future ones from the same source -- to spam purgatory. What you’re effectively doing here is training the Web-mail service to recognize what’s junk and what isn’t. Over time, you should get less of the former.
4. Know Your Enemy
As noted earlier, there will always be a few spam messages that sneak past whatever safeguards you have in place. This is especially true of “phishing” email, which often masquerades as real email from a legitimate company and tries to scare you into action. For example, suppose you receive an email that purports to be from PayPal and has this subject line: “Warning: Your account has been compromised.” You open the message and learn that you’ve been charged hundreds of dollars -- but can easily remedy the problem by clicking a link. Unfortunately, that link will probably open a Web page that allows viruses to invade your PC, at the same time attempting to get you to provide private information (passwords, credit-card numbers, perhaps even your Social Security number). It’s really important that you learn to spot these fakes. Among the telltale signs: misspelled words, strange formatting, failure to use your proper legal name, and, craziest of all, mail from companies you don’t even do business with. (If you don’t have a PayPal account, how can your account have been compromised?) Likewise, it’s really important to have a reliable anti-virus program installed on your PC, preferably one designed to detect and eliminate spam and phishing attempts. If nothing else, that anti-virus software will protect you against any attacks that happen as the result of spam. From now on, the only spam in your life should be the canned kind (though you should probably avoid that, too).