“Spam-spam-spam-spam. Lovely spam! Wonderful spam! Spam, spa-a-a-a-a-am!”
—Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Ubiquitous spam. It’s become an expected cost of online communication. No, I’m not talking about canned meat but, rather, the unwanted junk email which, thanks to sophisticated spam filtering, we seldom pay attention to nowadays. And, athough the term “spam” wasn’t used to describe junk email until the early 90s, spam has been around since the Internet’s formative years—the first spam email was reportedly sent in 1978!
Despite the power of today’s spam filters, dealing with spam email can still be an exercise in frustration and confusion. However, as a business owner, it is vital to check your spam and junk folders as often as you check your inbox because, even with advances in spam filtering, legitimate emails can still end up being flagged as spam.
According to some reports, as much as 20 percent of legitimate emails will never reach your inbox. You don’t want to miss any communications from your customers or vendors, but finding time in your day for one more task can seem daunting. The steps that follow can help make wading through your spam folder as easy as possible.
- When signing up for any online service or making an online purchase, make sure you uncheck any boxes for additional offers or offers from partners. Also, read the terms and conditions to find out what they will do with your information. If they’re going to give or sell your email address or any other personal information, consider finding another provider.
- Don’t post your hyperlinked email address anywhere on the Internet. Many businesses put their email address on their website or in their public business profile on Facebook and other social media. Spammers have software that will regularly check these areas for email addresses they can sell to other spammers. Use online forms on your website from services such as wufoo.com, constantcontact.com, or icontact.com for your social media, rather than posting your email address. At the very least, represent your email in an image format (e.g., jpeg or gif) rather than as text, or spell out your address (e.g., “name at website dot com”). Both formats make it more difficult (but not impossible) for spammers to extract your email address using automated software.
- Use two email addresses: One for customer communication, which you can put on your business cards or in conjunction with the forms listed above, and one for all other Internet activity. This will help make your customer contacts easy to find and manage, as well as alert you to the source of any uptick in spam activity.
- Avoid email addresses that begin with any of the common roles such as “admin,” “info,” “sales,” or “contact.” Because they are commonly used, spammers will send junk mail to all of them until they reach one that is active. See the sidebar for a more extensive list.
- Make sure you install an anti-malware program on your computer. Malware can be picked up by your computer while you’re browsing the Internet and can cause all kinds of problems, including increasing the amount of spam you receive. A lot of anti-virus software includes anti-malware, but check with your provider to make sure. If you don’t have anti-malware as part of your anti-virus software, find one ASAP. The most popular one right now is available for free: www.malwarebytes.org.
Most spam is plain, old junk mail, with obvious subject lines such as “Add an MBA to your resume in just 10 days!” or “You’ve been selected as our grand prize winner!” or any of the myriad “male enhancement” claims.
Phishing takes spam to a more insidious level. Phishing emails appear to be sent from a legitimate business you may use regularly, such as a bank or credit card company, in order to trick you into giving out personal or financial information.
A typical phishing email will tell you your account has been compromised somehow—a suspicious transaction, for example—and instruct you to verify your identity by providing your password, account number, social security number, or other personal information. Don’t be fooled: Legitimate businesses will never request sensitive information over such insecure channels as email or text.
Time to reboot?
If the amount of spam you receive is too much to look through at least once a day to find any legitimate emails, then, unfortunately, it may be time to change your email address. Start with a clean slate and then rigorously follow the steps outlined in this article.
Origins of spam
Spam email was named in tribute to a 1970 Monty Python comedy sketch in which the eponymous lunch meat is depicted as an unavoidable ingredient on a diner's breakfast menu, much to the chagrin of one hapless customer.
Although there's nothing funny about an inbox full of spam email, the Monty Python sketch still holds up. See the hilarity unfold for yourself at http://youtu.be/anwy2MPT5RE.
Emails commonly targeted by spammers:
The following email roles are easy targets for spammers employing directory harvest attacks, in which they attempt to find valid email addresses at a domain by guessing commun usernames. It is best to avoid using any of them:
abuse@, accounting@, admin@, admissions@, all@, billing@, booking@, careers@, contact@, contact-us@, customerservice@, custserv@, editor@, everyone@, feedback@, finance@, ftp@, helpdesk@, hostmaster@, info@, information@, investorrelations@, jobs@, mail@, marketing@, media@, news@, noc@, no-reply@, office@, ops@, postmaster@, privacy@, remove@, request@, resumes@, root@, sales@, security@, spam@, subscribe@, support@, test@, usenet@, users@, uucp@, webmaster@, www@
Common spamming scams
Emails with subject lines related to any of the following topics are commonly used in spamming scams:
Weight Loss Claims
Lotteries and Sweepstakes Scams
Fake Check Scams
Mystery Shopper Scams
Bogus Apartment Rentals
Debt Relief Scams
Pay-in-Advance Credit Offers
The "Nigerian" Email Scam
Online Dating Scams
Money Transfer Scams
Tech Support Scams
First published in Vol. 27 No. 4 of Retailing Insight. © 2013 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.