I find that spam—not the spiced ham in a can variant, but the deluge of unsolicited commercial e-mail—has become the topic of many of my conversations of late. It’s always evident when a new spamming tool becomes available that has been cleverly developed to foil even the best spam filters on the market. In fact, one of my clients estimates that 90% of the e-mails he receives fall into the category of spam, and I believe him.
As much as my company tries to stay on top of efficient filters, e-mail cleansing tools, and effective mailbox rules, I still receive “hot stock tips” and new opportunities to earn a million dollars by facilitating an offshore financial transaction. Yeah, right—does anyone actually fall for those? Spam is frustrating on many levels: it’s time-consuming and costly to try to prevent; it can bury legitimate e-mails or even cause them to be lost, which translates to lost business opportunity; and it ties up valuable resources across the planet.
Why does spam exist?
Like many things, the concept of spam started from a legitimate beginning—using e-mail to market a company, product, or service. Compared to other marketing strategies, e-mail blasts are cheap and effective. No stamp required, no print or broadcasting ad to develop and purchase, and immediate notification of receipt/response. From a marketer’s standpoint, it just doesn’t get any better than that! It’s the “unsolicited” portion of the definition that makes spam problematic.
From a legal standpoint, spam falls into the category of free speech, and I, for one, am not willing for spam to be eliminated at the risk of my e-mails being censored or scrutinized by anyone other than the addressee. Of course, I’m not an abuser of my privilege of using e-mail to communicate with my customers and potential customers.
E-mail addresses are cheap (if not free) and are readily available. I’m always conscientious about giving out my e-mail address, but doing business in an electronic world means that it’s necessary to make it available for the world to see, even the spammers. It is unfortunate that the bad guys out there crawl web sites to harvest e-mail addresses, because not listing those addresses on your web site may hamper your ability to generate business. A safe workaround is to use web-based forms for client communication that are routed to appropriate e-mail addresses.
There are thousands of sources for e-mail lists, so spam enablers are making money by accumulating lists of our e-mail addresses for sale. List providers are yet another example of a good idea gone bad. Who wouldn’t want a list of their potential customers, especially if your business has a very targeted market? I have one client whose market has a personal net worth of $10 million. That list was $3,600 and worth every penny to my client.
The biggest reason that spam exists, though, is because, yes, people do fall for those unbelievable scams—they do give their credit card numbers to fly-by-night web sites for a $25 Rolex, and they try to buy Viagra from unscrupulous sources. Spam exists because the spammers make money and there is no real investment required.
How do I eliminate spam?
Reducing spam in your e-mail account is similar to growing roses, in that both situations require ongoing care. Much like fertile soil, ample sunlight, and water, using a combination of server-based filtering, third-party desktop add-ons, and e-mail application rules is the most effective strategy.
Like choosing good soil for a new rose bush, it is best to start spam prevention from your mail server. Depending upon your level of access to the mail server used for your account, you can generally enable filtering based upon specific criteria: the sender address or domain name (known as blacklisting); certain words in the subject; or words in the body of the e-mail. Some filters allow you to choose a degree of potential for spam, generally from 1 to 10, depending upon things like your address as a specific recipient (rather than a long list of recipients); a large number of links or images within the body of the e-mail; or the existence of common spamming phrases. The good thing about using server-level filters is that you will never see the offensive e-mails. The bad thing about server-level filters is that you may lose some legitimate e-mails in the process. When aiming for the happy medium, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Some server-based filtering simply applies a flag to suspect e-mail messages, which then have to be handled by your desktop-based e-mail application to delete or place in a separate e-mail folder.
Another note about server-based spam protection: Earthlink offers a tool that I term “by invitation only.” With this strategy, the sender has to go to a website and request to be put on the recipient’s list of acceptable senders. Although this will no doubt reduce or even eliminate spam, not every legitimate sender will go through this process. If you use this filter, it is best to manage the entries yourself, and not expect everyone who may send you e-mail to do so.
Second in the plan of attack against spam is the use of desktop utilities. These come in many forms—some virus-protection packages supply anti-spam features. One of my associates uses a package called Mail Washer, which offers a low-end version for free. To find the best application for your uses, take a look at this review site, which evaluates some of the top spam blocker packages available. Again, it is important to note that these packages are not an “install and never receive spam again” solution. The filtering will only be as good as the effort you put into the configuration of e-mail message handling and you will still have to go through the spam folder that is created in your e-mail package in order to make sure you don’t lose messages you need.
Closest to home, your e-mail package can also offer protection against spam. The Microsoft mail packages, Outlook and Outlook Express, both offer the creation of rules to handle messages. They work in a fashion similar to the server-based filtering described above, then carry out whatever action you deem appropriate. Messages can be checked for specific phrases in the e-mail subject or body, then deleted or placed into a specific folder for further verification. Microsoft provides some templates for message rules and even offers a fairly automated “block sender” list. Don’t expect significant success with blocking particular senders when it comes to mass spamming. Most spammers utilize free account providers, like HotMail, to mask their identity, so the message you just received from them will probably be the only one you receive from that particular e-mail account.
Speaking of accounts, if you decide that you will, once and for all, free yourself of spam, be certain to create a whitelist, which is a list of e-mail senders whom you trust. The whitelist is simply of listing of accounts whose messages you do not wish to go through the gamut of filtering that will hopefully eliminate the real spam. Most whitelists allow you to enter a domain name so that any specific account, as long as it comes from the whitelisted domain will be properly delivered.
Am I a Spammer?
If you utilize e-mail marketing to prospective customers, make sure you don’t become an offensive spammer. There are a few simple rules to follow that can make a difference between happy customers and angry spam recipients. These rules are outlined in the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) CAN SPAM Act, which went into effect January 1, 2004. The CAN SPAM Act applies to commercial and pornographic electronic messaging and carries penalties for non-compliance of up to $11,000. Learn more about the CAN SPAM Act at www.ftc.gov/spam, including how to turn in offenders.
- Be legitimate. Masking header information (such as the sender and recipient’s actual e-mail addresses) is illegal. It makes sense. If the claims within the e-mail are honest, knowing who sent it is reasonable.
- Honesty is the best policy. Subject lines must reflect the content of the message. Baiting a reader with a subject line that is not indicative of the actual content sent within the body of the message is not an honest approach.
- Provide a legitimate opt-out. Opt-out is a simple mechanism that allows a recipient to remove themselves from your list. This is generally a clickable link that allows the recipient to complete a form and results in their address being removed from your e-mail list. Opt-outs should be immediately honored.
- Provide a valid postal address and notification of solicitation. The FTC also requires that the e-mail sender’s postal address be included within the body of the e-mail and that it be identified as a solicitation.
If you are about to start an e-mail marketing campaign, try using a product like Constant Contact to get you started. This package takes legal issues into account and helps you manage responses such as bounced (erroneous addressee) messages and opt-out.
Put these items into action to reduce the impact of spam on your life and ensure that you are playing by the rules. And if you receive a message that looks intriguing, do your research and don’t be scammed by the spammers!