You scroll through your e-mail inbox in disgust. Once again, it’s full of spam. Lately, it seems, you’re getting so many of these fake e-mail messages that you can barely find the few real ones.
Unwanted commercial email, messages, and robocalls – better known as spam – is a nuisance at best. At worst, it’s a way to scam you out of your hard-earned cash. But it’s so common these days that we often feel like there’s nothing we can do about it. We know there are ways to stop junk mail, but spam seems like it’s a fact of life.
However, there are things you can do. You probably can’t stop every single spam message from reaching your inbox, but you can cut way down on the amount you get. And better still, you can do it without paying a cent.
How Spam Hurts You Financially
Spam is more than an annoyance. It can cost you money in many different ways:
- Sales Pitches: The whole point of spam is to sell you stuff – usually, stuff you don’t need or want. But occasionally, a message might slip through that looks like such a good deal that you decide to snap it up. For instance, a message might offer a “genuine diamond necklace” for $10, not mentioning that the diamond is the size of a grain of sand. Respond to these messages, and you’re likely to end up wasting money on subpar products and services.
- E-Mail Scams: Some spam offers aren’t just bad deals – they’re completely bogus. Many spam messages are e-mail scams designed to con you out of your money. Their tricks range from telling you you’ve won a foreign lottery to posing as a friend or family member in need of money.
- Identity Theft: Sometimes, it’s not your cash spammers are after, but your personal information. Thieves can use your account numbers, or your Social Security Number, to steal your identity. In some cases, they pose as you and help themselves to money out of your account. In other cases, they take out new accounts in your name and pass the bills on to you.
- Malware: Some criminals use spam to smuggle harmful code, known as malware, onto your computer. Types of malware include viruses, worms, spyware, and adware. Once cybercriminals have their malware in place, they can use it to steal money or personal information. They can also take over your computer and use it to send more spam.
- Wasted Time: Spam can cost you money even if you don’t click on it. You still have to spend time deleting it, and as the old saying goes, time is money. Every minute you spend sifting spam out of your e-mail inbox is one minute less you have to spend doing something productive.
- Missed Messages: When your e-mail inbox is clogged with spam, it’s easy for real messages to get buried. If you overlook a message from work because you didn’t spot it among all the spam, you could miss an important meeting or fail to meet a deadline. That could put your job in danger.
How to Cut Down on Spam
There are all kinds of software programs out there that can filter out spam before it reaches your e-mail inbox. Some of them can also block viruses and other malware before they infect your computer. If you’re overwhelmed with spam, spending $25 or $30 on one of these programs could be a good investment.
However, there are also ways to control spam for free. It’s worth giving them a try before you go digging into your wallet. You might find that it only takes a bit of work on your part to keep your inbox mostly spam-free.
Learn to Spot Spam
The faster you identify a message as spam, the sooner you can delete it and get it out of your life. In many cases, you can tell a message is spam before you even open it. Here are a few clues to watch out for:
- Unknown Sender. You can often tell real messages from fake ones by looking at the sender’s name. However, this method isn’t foolproof. Some spam messages are “spoofed,” which means their headers are changed to hide the sender’s identity. For instance, some spam e-mails appear to come from big companies, such as Amazon or Citibank. Sometimes spammers even hack into your address book and send you fake messages that look like they’re from your friends. Even if a message appears to come from someone you know, that doesn’t prove it’s real. However, if it’s from someone you definitely don’t know, that’s a good sign it’s fake.
- Unfamiliar Address. Along with the sender’s name, check the e-mail address. If it has a lot of numbers in it, that’s often a sign that it’s a fake e-mail address created for spam purposes. The same goes for addresses with an unfamiliar domain (the part of the address that comes after the @ symbol). And finally, you can check to see if the e-mail address appears to match the name. For instance, if a message says it’s from “Citibank,” but the e-mail address isn’t some version of “citibank.com” or “citi.com,” you can be pretty sure it’s a phony.
- Suspicious Subject Matter. In spam e-mails, the same subjects come up repeatedly. Most of them involve money in one form or another: sales, investment opportunities, loan offers, or requests for cash. Other popular topics include sex and dating, new health treatments, “free gifts,” and information about packages that you don’t remember ordering.
- Lots of Typos. A message with a few typos in it could be from a friend who types too fast. But if nearly every word is misspelled, that’s a red flag. Spammers often spell words wrong on purpose in an attempt to foil spam filters. For instance, they know that filters are likely to pick up on the name “Viagra,” so they spell it as “Vigara” instead. Another common trick is to insert numbers in place of letters, as in “V1agra.”
- Images Instead of Text. Another way spammers evade spam filters is by using images in place of text. Often, one large image takes up most of the body of the message. It usually has large, eye-catching print inside it.
- Requests for Personal Data. E-mail scammers often pose as someone else – either a business or a friend – to get information out of you. They’ll try to lure you into handing over your username, password, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, or Social Security Number. All this info can be used to steal your identity. Anytime a message asks you to provide this kind of information – either by e-mail or by logging into a website – it should raise a red flag.
- Fake Links. One of the most popular e-mail scams is “phishing.” You get a message that appears to come from a business, such as PayPal. The message tells you that you need to log in to your account and gives you a link to click. However, this link takes you to a fake site that looks like the real thing. Once you enter your username and password there, the spammers have access to your account. To spot fake links in an e-mail, hover your cursor over the link to see what the URL is. If the link says it’s for the PayPal site, but the domain in the URL isn’t “paypal.com,” it’s almost surely a fake. Be especially wary if the address is a set of numbers, rather than a recognizable name.
- Unidentified Attachments. The easiest way for hackers to get malware onto your computer is to get you to install it yourself. They send you an e-mail attachment, and when you open it, it infects your computer. Anytime you get a message with an attachment that you weren’t expecting, you should be suspicious. Even if the message seems to come from someone you know, it could be a virus that’s sending it. To be sure, send a response asking your friend whether this message really came from them.
Never Reply to Spam
Spam advertisers do everything they can to tempt you into replying. However, that’s a good way to end up with a lot more spam in the future. Responding lets spammers know there’s a real person at the end of your e-mail address, so they’ll pester you more. They’ll even sell your e-mail address to other spammers to put on their mailing lists.
It’s also a bad idea to click the “Unsubscribe” link at the bottom of a spam message. This won’t take you off the spammer’s mailing list. Instead, it confirms that your e-mail address is valid, exposing you to more spam. It’s best not to click on any link in a spam message, or open any attachment. Doing this can expose your computer to malware. If you even remotely suspect that a message might be spam, don’t click.
Protect Your E-Mail Address
Spammers can get your e-mail address in all kinds of ways. One common way is to use “robots.” These are scripts that search websites for anything formatted like an e-mail address, with an @ symbol in the middle.
They can also trick you into handing over your e-mail address yourself. People will often enter their address without thinking in order to sign up for some kind of free offer, like a prize draw or a video site. They can even get your address from an unsuspecting friend who sends you a free e-greeting card. Your friend types in your address to send the card and a spammer collects it.
The bottom line is, the more people there are who have your e-mail address, the more spam you’re going to get. So, it’s best to avoid giving it out unless you absolutely have to. Here are a few ways to keep your address private:
- Uncheck the Box. Sometimes, when you first sign on to a website, there’s a little pre-checked box at the bottom of the page. Next to it is a line in fine print that says something like, “Yes, send me e-mail updates from this site and its partners.” Keep an eye out for this box, and uncheck it before you click to sign up.
- Don’t Publish It Online. Avoid putting your e-mail address online if you don’t have to. Of course, sometimes there’s no way to avoid this. For instance, you have to put your work e-mail on a work-related website, because you want clients to be able to reach you. But you can at least disguise the address to make it harder for robots to harvest. For instance, you can spell out the address with extra spaces, as in “j o h n s m i t h @ m a i l e r . c o m.” Or you can replace the “@” and “.” characters with words, as in “johnsmith at mailer dot com.” Humans can still figure out how to reach you, but robots won’t spot the address as easily.
- Use a Separate Address. If you have to put your address online, consider getting a separate e-mail address for that purpose. Use one address for all your personal e-mail and a separate one for shopping, newsletters, chat rooms, coupon sites, and so on. The inbox of this second account is likely to fill with spam quickly, but you don’t have to look at it.
- Use a “Disposable” Address. Another way to keep your address hidden from robots is to use a service that hides your e-mail. Free services like Blur, Spamex, and spamgourmet create a “disposable” e-mail address that you can give out to companies in place of your real address. Messages sent to this address get forwarded to your real e-mail – but only as long as you want them to. If you start getting spam through the disposable address, you can simply shut it off. This doesn’t interfere in any way with mail to your regular address.
Use Your Spam Filter Effectively
Most e-mail accounts come with some sort of spam filter. These tools screen out messages that look like spam and dump them into a bulk e-mail folder, instead of your inbox. However, these filters aren’t perfect. They don’t catch all spam, and once in a while they screen out a legitimate message.
Fortunately, you can train your spam filter to do its job better. When a spam message makes it through to your inbox, flag it as spam. That will help your system learn to recognize that messages like this one – for instance, messages from the same sender, or with the same subject line – are spam. The more spam messages you tag, the more accurate your filter will become.
You can educate the filter about false positives too. Every day or two, go through your bulk mail folder and look for any real messages that have been dumped there. When you find one, select it and tell the computer it isn’t spam. Doing this regularly ensures that you don’t miss any real messages, and helps you train the spam filter at the same time.
The way you mark messages as spam depends on which e-mail client you’re using. For example, in the web-based Gmail system, you flag spam by clicking the “Report spam” button, which looks like a stop sign with an exclamation point inside it. To mark false positives, you click a button labeled “Not spam,” which shows up when you’re looking at messages in the spam folder. To figure out how to do it in your system, check the help files.
Consider a New E-Mail Address
No matter how well you train your spam filter, some messages are going to get through. Spammers are always working on new ways to evade your filters, and e-mail providers can’t always keep up. And if you’re getting a huge volume of spam every day, even the small percentage that slips past the filter can add up to a lot of mail.
If you’re in this situation, there’s one more thing you can try as a last resort: changing your e-mail address. This is a big hassle, but if you’re swamped with spam, it gives you a chance to start over with a clean slate. Here’s how to do it:
- Choose a Unique Address. Spammers don’t limit their messages to known e-mail addresses; they also send out messages to random combinations of names and domains, such as “esmith” and “jdoe” at Gmail or Yahoo, hoping to hit on a real address. When you set up your new account, it’s best to choose an unusual name that spammers won’t find this way. Throwing in numbers as well as letters, as in “e59smith7,” is one way to foil the random searches. However, it also makes your e-mail address harder for friends and family to remember. If you can, come up with something that’s both unusual and easy to remember, such as “chuckletrousers.”
- Let Your Contacts Know. Once you set up your new address, tell all your contacts about the change. This includes friends, family, coworkers, and legitimate businesses that need to reach you, such as your utility company.
- Keep Both Addresses for a While. Even if you tell everyone about your new e-mail address, it’ll take a while for the e-mails to your old account to stop. It could take your friends a while to remember to change your name in their address books. Also, they might occasionally write to you by hitting “reply” on an old message that came from your old address. To make sure you don’t miss these messages, hold on to your old e-mail address for a few months. Check it every few days, and don’t drop it until you stop seeing legitimate messages showing up in the inbox.
- Share It With Care. Once you’ve fully switched over to your new account, your inbox should be nearly spam free. To keep it that way, be careful about sharing your new e-mail address. Only give it out when you need to. Also, make sure to ask your friends not to give out your new address without asking you first.
How to Fight Back Against Spammers
Getting your personal inbox clear of spam is a good start, but it’s only half the battle. The spammers will still be out there, spreading their scams and their malware – and constantly seeking new ways into your inbox. To stop them, you have to go on the offensive. Here are a few ways to strike back at spammers, not just on your own computer, but everywhere.
When you see a spam message in your mailbox, the easiest thing to do is hit delete. But if you really want to strike back at the spammers, take an extra step first. Before hitting delete, report the spam to people who can do something to fight it. You can report spam to:
- Your E-Mail Provider. Each e-mail service has its own set of tools for reporting spam. For instance, some providers have a button you can click to report a spam message. Others provide an e-mail address to forward spam to. At the top of the forwarded message, add a note explaining that you’re complaining about being spammed.
- The Sender’s E-mail Provider. If you can identify where the spam message came from, send a complaint to that provider as well. Most Internet service providers (ISPs) and web mail services want to stop spammers from using their systems, since it wastes their resources. Again, forward the entire spam message and state that you’re complaining about receiving spam.
- The FTC. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the closest thing there is to a police force for the Internet. You can report spammers to them by forwarding the entire message to firstname.lastname@example.org. The FTC stores these spam reports in a database, which it uses to bring cases against people who use spam to commit fraud.
Protect Your Computer From Hijacking
If you really hate spam, it will shock you to learn that some of it might be coming from your own computer. But if your computer doesn’t have up-to-date security software, it could be.
Spammers cruise the Internet looking for poorly protected computers. When they find one, they infect it with malware that lets them control the computer remotely. They then link up thousands of these hijacked computers into a “botnet” – a network they can use to send out millions of e-mails at once. Sending their spam out through botnets keeps their real locations hidden.
According to the FTC, the majority of spam is sent through botnets. Millions of home computers are used this way without their owners knowing anything about it. If you don’t want yours to become one of them, follow these steps:
- Practice Safe Computing. Keep all your software up to date, including your operating system, web browser, security software, and apps. Out-of-date systems are much easier to hack into. Also, disconnect your computer or phone from the Internet when you’re not using it. If you’re not connected, hackers can’t get in.
- Open Attachments With Care. Don’t open any e-mail attachment – even from someone you know – unless you know what it is or were expecting it. If someone sends you an unidentified attachment, send a message back to make sure it’s legitimate. And if you have to send an attached file to someone else, include a message explaining what it is.
- Be Wary of Free Software. Free software programs, such as games, browser extensions, and file-sharing programs, look like a tempting deal. However, they’re also a common way to spread malware. To protect yourself, only download free software from sites you know and trust.
- Alert Friends to Hacking. You can also warn your friends if their computers appear to have been roped into a botnet. If you get a spam message that looks like it came from a friend’s address, send your friend a message to let them know their account has been compromised. That way, they can purge the malware from their computers before the infection spreads further. However, don’t respond directly to the spam message. If you do, your reply might get redirected to the hacker. Instead, write a new message to your friend’s address. If that doesn’t work, call or text them instead.
Detect and Remove Malware
It’s not always easy to tell when there’s malware on your computer. Your first warning might be a message from a friend about a “weird” e-mail from you that you don’t recall sending. You might also notice e-mail messages in your sent folder that you didn’t send. Or your computer could simply start acting sluggish or displaying repeated error messages. If you notice any of these warning signs, follow these steps:
- Stop Using Sensitive Accounts. Stop using the Internet for shopping, banking, or anything else that involves sensitive information. Don’t log on to these accounts again until the problem is fixed.
- Run a Security Scan. First, make sure your security software is up to date. Then run a scan to look for viruses and other malware. Delete any file the program identifies as a problem.
- Call Tech Support. If a scan doesn’t fix the problem, try calling tech support. If your computer has a warranty that includes free tech support, you can call the manufacturer for help. If not, try calling a computer store or other company that provides technical help for a fee.
- Report the Malware. The FTC keeps tabs on malware infections in the USA. To report one, file a complaint through the FTC Complaint Assistant.
How to Stop Other Unwanted Messages
Your e-mail inbox is a popular target for advertisers – but it’s not the only one. They’ll also force their way into your cell phone and even your landline, if you have one. Fighting back against unwanted ads in these areas requires an entirely different set of tools and tricks.
Text Message Spam
Text message spam is like e-mail spam, only it attacks your cell phone instead of your computer. Spam texts are even more annoying than spam e-mails, because they interrupt your day and force you to look at them right away. But text message spam isn’t just an annoyance – it’s a real danger.
How Text Message Spam Hurts You
The FTC calls text message spam a “triple threat,” because it can harm you in three ways:
- It Costs You Money. Many wireless carriers charge you for each text message you receive, whether you requested it or not. So, text spammers don’t just force their ads on you; they also force you to pay for them.
- It Slows Down Your Phone. To add insult to injury, text message spam can also slow down your cell phone’s performance. All those spam texts take up space in your phone’s memory, leaving less to deal with the messages you actually want.
- It Tries to Scam You. Just like spam e-mails, spam texts are often scams. They lure you in by offering free gifts, discounts, or financial products like cheap mortgages. Then they ask you to hand over personal information, such as your income or your bank account number. Spam texts can also contain fake links. Clicking on one installs malware that collects information from your phone. Spammers use both these ploys to get information about you, which they sell to marketers or, worse, identity thieves.
Sending text message spam is illegal. Companies are only allowed to text you messages if they have a relationship with you. For instance, your bank is allowed to send you a statement this way.
How to Fight Text Message Spam
For the most part, you can deal with text message spam the same way as e-mail spam. Delete the messages, and don’t reply or click any links. However, there are a few extra things you can do about text message spam:
- Register Your Cell Phone. Put your cell phone on the national Do Not Call Registry. This will stop you from getting unwanted calls or texts from legitimate businesses. However, it won’t stop scammers, since they don’t care about the law.
- Check Your Bill. When you get your cell phone bill, check to make sure there are no unauthorized charges. If you spot any, report them to your carrier.
- Forward Spam Texts. If you have a cell phone plan with one of the biggest providers – AT&T, Bell, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon – you can report spam texts to your carrier. Copy the message and text it to the number 7726 (SPAM). The carriers use these reports to help them filter spam texts better.
- File a Complaint. If you receive spam texts, you can report them to the FTC through the FTC Complaint Assistant. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Have you ever picked up the phone and heard a recorded voice on the other end trying to sell you something? These annoying messages are called robocalls, and they’re illegal. Unfortunately, catching the lawbreakers isn’t easy.
What Robocalls Are
Not all prerecorded calls are illegal. Some types of messages are allowed, including:
- Messages promoting a candidate for office
- Requests for donations to charities
- Messages that only provide information, such as “Your flight has been canceled,” or “Your child’s school is opening late today”
- Calls from businesses trying to collect a debt
- Reminders from health-care providers – for instance, about an appointment or a prescription refill
- Calls that come directly from a company you do business with, such as your bank or phone carrier
However, recorded sales calls are illegal, unless you’ve given permission in writing for the company to contact you. It’s also against the law to send any prerecorded call to a cell phone.
Not only are robocalls illegal, they’re usually scams. The callers offer a wide range of products and services, including credit cards, auto warranty protection, home security systems, and grants. These offers only have one thing in common: They’re all fake.
Robocalls have spiked in recent years, thanks to new technology. Autodialers make it possible for scammers to send out thousands of phone calls each minute at very little cost. They can also use new technology to “spoof” the caller ID on your phone, so you can’t tell where they’re calling from. They can disguise their number to look like the call is coming from your bank, another business, or even a private phone.
How to Fight Robocalls
Unfortunately, putting your phone on the Do Not Call Registry won’t stop robocalls. The people who send out these messages are criminals, so breaking one more law doesn’t bother them. However, there are other ways to fight these illegal calls:
- Hang Up. As soon as you realize you’re hearing a robocall, hang up the phone. Don’t press 1 to speak to an operator or some other number to “be removed from our call list.” Doing this will have the opposite effect: It will confirm that your phone number works. The caller will sell it to other companies, and you’ll get more robocalls in future.
- Try Nomorobo. Nomorobo is like a spam filter for your phone. When a robocall comes through, Nomorobo answers it immediately, so it can’t get through to you. Your phone will ring once and then stop. This service can’t block out all robocalls, but it catches most of them. Nomorobo is free for landline phones, but it only works with VOIP carriers, such as Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse. There’s also a version for iPhones that costs $1.99 per month. (An Android version is coming soon.) You can sign up in just a few minutes through the Nomorobo website.
- In Canada, Use Telemarketing Guard. Landline customers in Canada can screen robocalls with a free service called Primus Telemarketing Guard. This service works similarly to Nomorobo, but it gives you more options for dealing with calls. Unfortunately, there is no similar service available for landline phone customers in the U.S.
- Use Call-Blocking Apps. If you use a smartphone, there are apps available to block unwanted calls. These apps can create blacklists – lists of numbers that are blocked from calling your phone. They can also create whitelists – lists of numbers that are allowed to call your phone – and block out all others. For instance, they can let you block calls from anyone who isn’t in your personal contact list. Some mobile apps also create their own blacklist databases, blocking out calls from numbers that have received a lot of complaints from consumers. Popular call-blocking apps include Truecaller (free for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone) and Hiya (free for Android and iOS).
- Install a Call-Blocking Device. To block robocalls on your landline phone, you can install a call-blocking device. Like call-blocking apps, these devices work by creating blacklists and whitelists. Call-blocking devices range in price from around $30 to over $150. You’ll need to shop carefully to make sure the one you pick will work with both your home phone and your phone service.
- Report Robocalls. Just like e-mail and text message spam, robocalls can be reported to the FTC. You can use the online Complaint Assistant or call 1-888-382-1222. The FTC uses this information to help build better call blacklists.
- Put Pressure on Phone Carriers. In 2015, the FCC passed new rules giving phone companies the right to offer robocall-blocking technology to their customers. So far, however, phone carriers aren’t providing this service. You can put pressure on your carrier by calling and asking the company to provide a way to block robocalls. You can also sign a petition addressed to the major phone companies.
Even if you do everything right, you probably won’t be able to get spam out of your life completely. Spammers are clever, and they’re always coming up with new ways to get around your filters. But with a little effort, you can manage to reduce your spam load from dozens of messages a day to a few a week, or even less. And at the same time, you can reduce spam’s burden on everyone else by keeping your computer clean and free from malware.
How much spam do you get? What’s your favorite way to deal with it?