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Spam 101 – Don't let the cat out of the bag

Last January this column gave some general guidelines about how to deal with spam (junk e-mail). It's amazing how quickly things change. A year ago spam was somewhat of a nuisance – today, it's threatening to make e-mail useless for many people. In fact, a recent study reported that over 60% of all corporate e-mail traffic is spam. This means that it's time to revisit the topic of how to battle spam. This month's column covers how to keep those nasty spammers from learning about your e-mail address in the first place.

If you've used your e-mail account for any length of time and still receive more legitimate e-mail messages than spam, consider yourself lucky (or perhaps you've been very diligent). In any case, the "cat hasn't been let out of the bag"– your e-mail address hasn't been added to any spammers' databases yet.

Once it's added to a spammer's database, you'll forever be fighting a war to eliminate the barrage of spam without also eliminating the e-mail messages you want to receive.

If, like many, you're already inundated by spam, read on anyway. You can prevent your e-mail address from being added to any additional spammers' databases. Also, be sure to read next month's "TechVille" column, which explains how to manage the spam you're stuck with (there is hope, really!)

Protect your primary, personal e-mail address

How do you protect your e-mail address? Do NOT expose it anywhere on the Internet. For example, if you have your own website, don't place your personal e-mail address on it. Instead, place a different e-mail address on it (typically something like Info@Example.com) that's dedicated to communicating with website visitors. Only share your personal e-mail address with those individuals you explicitly want to do business with. 

Tip: Ask your web designer to protect the "exposed" e-mail link by adding some web programming code that prevents it from being "harvested" by spammers very easily.  

Similarly, never post your personal e-mail address anywhere else on the Internet. This includes using it to place an order online with an eCommerce website (especially if it's an unfamiliar website) or when posting a message in a newsgroup forum (also called a "bulletin board").

Generally speaking, major retailers don't share your e-mail address with spammers. Then again, you never know; it only has to happen once and you're on the spammers' lists forever.

Use a "throwaway" e-mail address

So, how do you continue taking advantage of the web, doing things such as making online purchases or using newsgroups without exposing your personal e-mail address? Use a "throwaway" address instead.

Many companies, such as Yahoo, MSN, and now Google, offer free e-mail services that are accessed via a web browser, such as Internet Explorer.

You can use them to sign up for a free e-mail address (just browse to one of their websites and look for a link to create an e-mail account). Use this e-mail address whenever you suspect that there's even the remotest chance that it could be exposed to spammers. Then, when (not if) that account becomes overwhelmed by spam, just abandon that throwaway e-mail address and sign up for a new one.

The downside of this, however, is that you have to take separate actions to check both your free "throwaway" e-mail address via a browser and your personal account via an e-mail program (like Outlook).

If you have your own website, however, then you probably also have your own e-mail service. (If your website and e-mail address use the same domain name, such as www.Example.com and YourEmail@Example.com, then this is the case.) You can ask whoever is in charge of handing out e-mail accounts (addresses) to create a new account for you that you'll use for spam-prone activities.

The benefit of doing this, versus using browser-based e-mail, is ease of use. You can tell your e-mail program to also check the new e-mail account at the same time it checks your regular account. Then, tell your e-mail program to deliver your spam-prone messages to a location other than your Inbox. (For information on how to do this, read my article on Email Inbox Management.

Remember – protect your e-mail address

Remember, the rule of thumb is to never give out your e-mail address to the general public on the Internet. If you only make it known to people and companies that you know you want to do business with, you'll have a high degree of confidence that most of the messages arriving in your Inbox are actually for your eyes.

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