Interesting reading in the Spam folder

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger 5/8/2015.

PDF: Interesting reading in the spam folder

Every day, billions of email messages are weighed in the balance and found wanting. You never see most of them, as they are unceremoniously blocked by filtering software or pushed into spam folders. And it’s a good thing, too; not only are most of them a waste of your time and resources, they could be harboring little fugitives of code (viruses and the like) which can make your computer as useful as the brick you use as a doorstop.

Since email is fast, easy and pretty much free, there are armies of people just waiting to send you messages. Although there are varying estimates on the number of email messages sent every day, the tech site The Radicati Group (radicati.com) recently estimated that number at 205 billion. Of those, the majority (some say upwards of 90 percent) are unsolicited.

Email spamming is a huge industry worldwide, and is growing faster than Mississippi kudzu in June. And it’s equally as hard to eradicate; federal laws, such as the colorfully-named CAN-SPAM act, are notoriously hard to enforce and are largely ignored by the spam industry.

Since it’s generally not a good idea to go clicking on messages that end up in your spam folder, you should use an abundance of caution before clicking on any message you don’t recognize. But there are some interesting things to be found, just by reading the messages’ subject line in the preview screen.

Right now, there are 60 messages in my spam folder. These are like the prisoners who got under the prison wall, but were caught by the guards patrolling outside the walls.  Many of them contain characters designed to throw off filtering software. For example, one reads “Need_cash_?_Get_up_to_$15,000!” Since using an underscore makes this basically one string of text (from the computer’s viewpoint), the spammer is hoping that this will make it through.

A lot of these messages are designed to appeal to our baser instincts. “Asianbeauties_Team” promises “Attractive(heart emoticon)Asian Women(heart emoticon)Looking for Love now.” “People Search Engine” says they can “Catch him cheating!” Others offer the chance to enhance your life (and other things), to “Have fun, see the world, make moola”, or “Start a nursing degree.”

The point is that these messages are trying desperately to get our attention, by piquing our curiosity with “clickbait”. And although the huge majority of them never make it into the light, the few which do can wreak havoc, just by having the user click on them. Of course, spam filters be a little too aggressive, filtering out things that you might actually want to receive. Most Internet service providers (ISPs) have ways to let through future messages from a particular sender, as part of a “whitelist”.

Security experts recommend several actions to protect yourself from spam. Here are a few:

  1. Never, ever click on any message that’s from someone you don’t know. Although some spammers have gotten creative with messages that look like they come from your bank, insurance company or other known entity (phishing), using your good judgment might prevent you from becoming a victim, but you have to ignore the urge to click on it.
  2. Install filtering/blocking software, and keep it up to date. Your ISP will probably have addressed this issue, but it’s not a perfect solution. You need to have — and keep updated – your own line of defense.
  3. Never respond to any email that looks suspicious. Just delete it. And using “unsubscribe” links from unfamiliar websites can get you in trouble, as well, just confirming the accuracy of the spammer’s list. The result will be even more spam.
  4. Use a secondary address. Since you can set up email addresses for free, consider setting up a “shill” address that you use to subscribe to online services, newsletters and updates. Keep your primary address for your most serious business, and use it sparingly.
  5. Report it. Most ISPs have strong rules about spam. Find out from the ISP how to report a suspicious message, and turn them in.

There are many more things you can do. Security company Norton has some good tips at http://us.norton.com/yoursecurityresource/detail.jsp?aid=protect-against-spam.

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