Spam's a Nuisance That Can Be Managed, Up to a Point
In the decade or so since Web access became a consumer commodity, we've fixed many things about the Internet, from the pokey speed limit of dial-up modems to browsers that crash three times an hour. But spam is a bigger nuisance than ever.
It starts taking its toll long before it lands in your inbox. First, spammers employ spyware and viruses to hijack home and office computers for use as unwitting relays for junk e-mail. Then your Internet provider must spend time and money running its own filters, lest its own computers be swamped.
The junk e-mail that inevitably leaks through then wastes your time and bandwidth as you wait for each message to download. Almost all of it insults your intelligence and good sense; spam assumes we're drug-addicted, money-grubbing, porn-addled fools ready to click on any stupid offer.
And the single worst thing about spam? Enough recipients do click on those stupid offers to keep spammers in business, demonstrating how dumb we can be.
Nobody has found a technological fix for spam. The Internet's design puts a priority on the free flow of data. Internet providers, too many of which still whore themselves out to spammers, and spammers' own cockroach-like tenacity all but ensure there won't be.
Because the Internet spans the world, laws aren't likely to solve this problem either, although I am always delighted to see spammers being litigated into poverty, fined into bankruptcy or imprisoned until senility sets in.
Spam can, however, be managed. You can make your e-mail address a smaller target for spammers, and you can shunt aside a healthy chunk of the spam that does find you.
If you can keep your address off spammers' lists, you will get little or no junk e-mail. So never post your e-mail address on any public spot on the Web, and be choosy about giving it to strangers or companies.
Instead, create a second, throwaway account at any of the free Web-mail services, such as Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or Gmail, and use that for your online commerce. Most Web sites won't share your address with the world -- but a few of them might, so why chance it?
This method will not, however, defeat a dictionary attack, in which spammers send messages to randomly chosen names at popular Internet providers (first firstname.lastname@example.org, then email@example.com, then firstname.lastname@example.org and so on). Having an address with an unusual spelling or at a lesser-known provider can reduce your vulnerability.
When spam does arrive, never respond to it. And make sure your mail software isn't doing that for you: If it displays a picture in a spam message, it often does so by downloading the image from the spammer's Web site, which tells the sender you just read the spam.
Current releases of the major mail programs -- Microsoft's Outlook Express and Outlook, Apple's Mail, Qualcomm's Eudora and Mozilla's Thunderbird -- won't display pictures in mail from strangers. But older versions of them will, so upgrade now.