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Whether or not an unsubscribe link is safe to use can be incredibly difficult to determine. Here are some rules of thumb.
In order to try to cut down on spam I usually opt out at the end of the offer. Is this a good idea or am I just confirming my email address is a good working one which invites even more spam?
It's hard to say without knowing what you mean by "at the end of the offer".
But you're quite right: sometimes the unsubscribe link isn't an unsubscribe at all. In fact, sometimes it's the moral equivalent of a "send me more spam" link.
The problem is that you really do need to know when it's legitimate and should be used.
I can offer some guidelines as to when you should and when you should not click on something that claims to be an unsubscribe link.
The rule is actually quite simple: if you asked for it, then it's probably legitimate and you should use the unsubscribe link. If you didn't ask for it then it's probably not legitimate, and you should avoid the unsubscribe link.
For example, if you sign up for my newsletter, you'll be receiving email that you explicitly asked for. In fact not only do you have to sign up, but you have to take a second step to actually confirm that you want the weekly newsletter. Only after you confirm do I start sending it to you.
you already trust me as a reputable site
you asked for my newsletter
you explicitly confirmed that you want my newsletter in a second "double opt in" stop
I send you only what you signed up for (a weekly newsletter)
Then I'm acting like a trustworthy source of mail. My newsletter is not spam, and I can probably be trusted. And yes, at the bottom of every issue of the newsletter is an unsubscribe link for you to click on if you ever want to stop receiving it.
If any of those rules are broken, though, then things get dicey.
You didn't ask for it. And, to be clear, you're positive that you didn't ask for the email you're receiving, then it's almost certainly classic spam. So called "newsletters" pushing the latest body part enlargement product or breaking stock market news are great examples. I get them, I never asked for them, thus they are spam.
And their unsubscribe links are not to be trusted. As you've pointed out, they're just confirmation that "we've got a live one!" and will in all likelihood result in only more spam, not less.
From here on out, though, things get less clear.
You've never heard of the sender. When you suddenly start getting email from a business or other source that you don't recognize it's right to be suspicious. Most of the time it's simply spam.
The problem is that sometimes when you, for example, complete a purchase at an online retailer, they will send you email (more on that in a second), but they will sometimes also ask if it's ok to share your email address with marketing partners. By that they mean they'll give your email address to other companies so that they can send you offers.
In a sense you asked for it because you didn't uncheck a box somewhere in the order process. Personally I find this type of tactic often underhanded; sometimes that box is really hard to notice and easy to leave checked without ever having paid attention.
What this means, though, is if you suddenly start getting email from what appears to be a legitimate business that you've never actually done business with it might be legitimate. But it also might not be.
I'd err on the side of safety in most cases and not use the unsubscribe link unless it was obviously a link directly to the site of the company, and it's a company I already trust.
You never confirmed your desire for more mail. The concept of "double opt in", where you need to confirm a separate piece of email in order to get on a list, is extremely important "best practice" for senders of email. But it's not really required. For example, when you place a purchase with an online retailer they'll need to collect your email address in order to process the purchase. If they then start sending you periodic offers after your purchase is complete, is that spam or not? Different people will give different answers.
My take is this: since it's from a company you actually transacted business with, I'd trust the unsubscribe link.
You confirmed, but then didn't get what you expected. Also known as a "bait and switch". Perhaps you sign up for someone else's newsletter, and then start getting sales and marketing emails, either in place of or in addition to the newsletter. That's really bad form. The problem is that once again it's difficult to know exactly what to do. You may be all right unsubscribing, you may not be.
The bottom line is the simple reputation of the sender. If you have reason to trust the source of the email and believe them to be legitimate and well-behaved senders of email, then absolutely use the unsubscribe link.
If you've never heard of them, don't.
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