Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Getting spam is the norm these days. If you suddenly start getting spam when before you had not, the question isn't "why?" - it's "what took so long?"

I guess I've been living a charmed life but for the longest time I had absolutely no spam in my Web mail. I use Earthlink for my ISP. Well, that bubble has burst and lately I've been getting all these freaky addresses with the dumbest subject lines and from some of the subject lines it seems some of this spam is R-rated. I'm confused as I'm a Senior Citizen and I DON'T surf adult sites so why, all of a sudden, am I getting this junk? Earthlink has an option that I can click on the name and report it as spam the only drawback is this list is limited to 500 names and the rate this is going I might reach that goal, then what do I do??

Yes, you have been leading a charmed life. Getting no spam at all is by far the exception, rather than the rule. The fact that you're getting spam now is no surprise at all. The surprise is that it took as long as it did.

Why and How? We'll look at some possibilities.

What to do? I'll touch on a few options here as well. (But one hint: the "report this address as spammer" is kinda pointless.)

People often wonder just how spammers get their email address in the first place. There are many, many possibilities. Here are just a few:

"Spam is, unfortunately, inevitable."
  • You posted your email address in public on a web site. For example, let's say you mention your email address in a comment you post on someone's blog. Spammers regularly scour the internet looking for anything that looks like an email address, and they start sending spam to it. I think this is possibly the most common form of direct email address harvesting today.

  • You posted your email address in public on a newsgroup or forum. I did this years ago by mistake (with my wife's email address, no less). Usenet and many forum management packages still display publicly whatever email address you give them. Many do not, so it's important to know the difference. (The good news is that most discussion forum software these days is better behaved. Usenet is still a mess, though. Fortunately it's slowly falling out of favor.)

  • You joined a mailing list that keeps public archives on the web. These archives often include the full mail header of each message, including your email address - ripe for harvesting by spammers.

  • A friend of yours forwarded an email of yours without removing your email address from it. I see this all the time with forwarded humor - people hit forward and then fail to take the time to remove all the email headers from the body of the message. You've seen it too, I expect; email you have to page down multiple times to skip all the email headers before you actually get to see the body. That email frequently ends up getting forwarded (unintentionally, I might add) to people who then scan the email body for anything that looks like an email address.

  • You bought something from a less-than-reputable retailer or service. Some companies will sell or rent the list of email addresses they've collected. Once they give the list of email addresses to someone else, all bets are off since that other person could do anything with that list, including selling it to spammers.

  • You sent or received email. I know this sounds silly - of course you sent or received email! That's what your email address is for, after all. The problem is that email, including the addresses it goes to and comes from, is sent in plain text. Since email is sometimes routed from server to server on its way to its final destination, it's possible that a spammer can "sniff" the traffic and harvest any email addresses found.

  • They guessed. Seriously, that's why email names like "firstname" @ any domain name are spam targets. Spammers often simply try sending email to every email name they've ever encountered at every domain they've ever seen. I can tell you that "leo @ whatever" gets lots of spam. This is an extremely common technique, as anyone who's looked at mail server logs can tell you.

There are probably many more ways that spammers can get your email address; those are just a few I could think of quickly. You'll note that most are not in your control at all. Spam is, unfortunately, inevitable.

So, what can you do?

Well, I can tell you that flagging specific email addresses that you get email From: as spammers simply won't work. Spammers now regularly fake or "spoof" the email address that appears in the "From:" field. It didn't come from there at all. And they keep picking new ones at random.

The bottom line is that using the "From:" field as a way to stop spam is nearly useless in many cases. Sometimes there are specific spammers that do send from a single address, but they're infrequent. So I wouldn't bother blacklisting an email address until or unless you specifically get multiple spam messages from them.

The real answer is that there is no answer. There is no single solution or combination of solutions that will make spam stop without also preventing legitimate messages from getting through.

You can sometimes reduce the amount of spam by:

  • Making sure your ISP and/or your email program has a spam filter, and that the filter is enabled. (GMail is currently very popular for their spam filtering abilities.)

  • Periodically changing your email address. This can be painful since all your contacts need to update their information in order to contact you.

  • Use a challenge/response system so only people that prove they're human can email you. I do not recommend this solution (you will miss email you wanted), but include it for completeness since there are people who swear by it.

I have three spam filters in place: since I run my own mail server, two are implemented there (and are frequently also implemented by ISPs), and I have the spam filter in Thunderbird.

And still some spam makes it through.

My next line of defense?

The Delete key. Apply it liberally, and get on with your life.

Article C3427 - June 26, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

20 Comments
Rahul
June 26, 2008 1:43 PM

My experience with Thunderbird's internal filter is that it works for a while and then reaches a plateau. It is a learning filter and is supposed to learn as it goes. However after a while a stead quantity of spam fall through.

My solution - I have my gmail account pick up mails from the pop servers. My Thunderbird picks up from gmail. Works like a charm.

Ethan
June 26, 2008 3:09 PM

Sometimes reporting e-mail as spam can be helpful. If the spam is coming from a semi-reputable organization that is not adhering to appropriate rules it will make it more difficult for them to get their e-mail through if you report it as spam. I have been on the receiving end of phone calls from major ISPs giving me a warning because my e-mails were being tagged as spam. In that case they were political e-mails (and I was following orders!).

Be aware though that your choices here make a difference to others. If you report a commercial e-mail as spam just because you are too lazy to go to the website and unsubscribe properly you may cause the company to be blacklisted by your ISP. I find legitimate e-mail in my "spam" box frequently and I'm sure this is the cause.

Ronny
June 27, 2008 8:41 AM

I also use Earthlink email. It has three settings:

1. No filtering
2. Moderate filtering
3. Challenge/response

I use option #2 and get very little spam. I suspect this person is not using any filtering and a switch to #2 would help a great deal.

If s/he is like my mother and only emails a few friends and family, option #3 would stop all the spam.

Ronny
June 27, 2008 8:41 AM

I also use Earthlink email. It has three settings:

1. No filtering
2. Moderate filtering
3. Challenge/response

I use option #2 and get very little spam. I suspect this person is not using any filtering and a switch to #2 would help a great deal.

If s/he is like my mother and only emails a few friends and family, option #3 would stop all the spam.

Ken B
June 27, 2008 1:30 PM

Just a note that, as far as challenge/response goes, realize that for every person that swears *by* it, there are probably several that swear *at* it.

And Ronny, it won't stop "all the spam". Remember, virtually every C/R challenge to a spam will be sent to an innocent bystander who happens to have been to owner of the forged "from" address. Many people have gotten fed up with being asked to help you filter your spam, for free, that they will acknowledge the challenge, and you will get the original spam. ("I have no way of knowing if you wanted this. Take it and deal with it yourself.")

Randy
July 1, 2008 9:21 AM

Tip: search for your own e-mail address on Google, Yahoo, and any other big search engines you like. Did you find your address there? Yes? Well, so will spammers.

Randy, author of http://www.SpamPrimer.com

David
July 1, 2008 9:35 AM

yeah, spam is the scourge of the internet but getting mad at it doesn't help...lol Easiest thing to do is just delete it and get on with your life. You can't control it. Btw, gmail is very good for filtering spam, I rarely get any in my inbox.

sandra holland
July 1, 2008 10:00 AM

while i was trying to read Leo's--there were 3 large ads blocking it in various places and a"subscribe " ad from Leo blocking his own --
is this the pot calling the kettle black?
my stopping spam was to change e m addresses --i went from webtv to my msn. now i do not get spam on either address nor on the one acct i did not know i had--plus the highest filter in use helped.
sandra holland

Adam Fikso
July 1, 2008 10:02 AM

This was instructive and might be helpful after I read it again. Query: Doesn't the FCC have something to say about this? AND..Will a new president be able to make a difference?

Kat
July 1, 2008 5:13 PM

Postini does a magnificent job of keeping the junk out of my inbox! (Otherwise I'd be getting about 50 to 75 pieces of crap every day.

Ravi Agrawal
July 1, 2008 9:50 PM

Try to use a crappy email address hard to guess & use 2 email addresses : one for the public sites which you can fill freely anywhere & one personal which you would only want to give to your trusted ones.

Well as truly said, Spam is inevitable & yes I am a big fan of Gmail, Its been more than a year since I've been using it & I hardly get any spam. Of course that crappy email-id including your safe browsing habits help a lot, believe it or not.

Ravi.

Chris
July 2, 2008 6:32 AM

4 years and 3 months of no spam until just over a month ago - it really is inevitable (and now its just plain annoying!!). Thanks for an article that helps clarify a few things...keep up the great work!

David
July 2, 2008 9:51 AM

Leo,
The biggest way to cut back on spam is to simply not open it! When you open any spam the sender is automatically notified that they have a legit email.Currently I use a free program called Spamihilator and it does a great job. I was using Norton AntiSpam, but it could not hit the broadside of a barn. Also, I have one primary account that is for friends and family only. A 2nd email account for newsletters and such. My 3rd email is to give out. If I want to try a newsletter for awhile I will give them the 3rd email until they have proved themselves to me, and then I will move them to the 2nd email.

Also, be careful of any website that wants your home address. In other words unless you are ordering something a site does not need your home address and telephone, and if they insist give them fake information.

Leo
July 3, 2008 1:44 PM

-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE-----
Hash: SHA1

"When you open any spam the sender is automatically notified
that they have a legit email."

That's simply not true. As long as you have "automatically
display images" (or it's equivalent in your email program)
turned OFF, there is no way for the spammer, or anyone else
for that matter, to get notified that you have opened an
email.

Needless to say I strongly recommend having "automatically
display images" turned off.

Leo


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James Nell
July 4, 2008 2:46 PM

Hi
I have been using Incredimail with the Junkfilter Plus installed and it works great as when you report a junk e-mail it ads it to a massive online database.
I found that it filters out 90% of junk mail.
And keep auto image display off.
Also use two email accounts , one for general web sighnups etc and another for personal use.

Glenn P.
July 8, 2008 1:02 PM

In your E-Mail newsletter summary, You wrote:

"...there is no way for the spammer, or anyone else for that matter, to get notified that you have opened an email."

Don't be SILLY! Haven't you ever heard of return receipts!? Gawd, I can't believe you SAID that...!

Ziggie
July 8, 2008 4:13 PM

Glenn, return receipts, I believe, are an Outlook only thing. And they are hardly reliable. Many email clients/servers refuse to even acknowledge them.

Leo
July 9, 2008 1:46 PM

-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE-----
Hash: SHA1

Glenn: Believe it. Return reciepts are completely unreliable
and disabled by most email programs by default.

Leo


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=F8MY
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vella
July 20, 2008 10:21 PM

I have found out through my own experience that your email Inbox can be bombarded with spam if someone enters your email address into a website that says Spam Your Enemies.
I rec'd over 265 spam newsletters / subscriptions with 2 days & had to close my email account.
I suspect somebody I had recently cheesed off had entered my email address ... & yes, the newsletters were from all different weird & wonderful websites, including porn [which really irritated me]
The worse thing is that the Spam Your Enemies websites appear to be legitmate.

colin willsher
March 18, 2009 7:38 AM

I understand why I get spam - but why have I suddenly in the past two weeks or so stopped getting any at all? After regularly getting 20/30 pieces a day, now I get none (I am not complaining just curious ). Also over the same period now when I get an onscreen notification that I have new email messages, there are none in my inbox, or else like today it said I have 7 new messages and there were only 3. Could this have any connection with the dissappearence of the spam?

You didn't say what email program you use. I would suspect that email is being filtered into your spam folder. See if email is arriving there.
- Leo
19-Mar-2009

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