Ask that nice man...

Why Am I Getting All This Stuff In My Inbox?

I never visit x-rated web sites, or send adult e-mail, or anything like that. Yet I have begun receiving e-mail of a highly salacious nature, inviting me to visit all kinds of Web pages. I am appalled. Why are these people picking on me?
Unsolicited Commercial Bulk E-mail (popularly known as "spam", presumably from the classic Monty Python sketch) is a real problem. If you find it annoying, pity the poor Internet resource managers -- they really hate it.

Because it costs the spammers approximately nothing to send each message, they don't care whether or not you are a good candidate for their message. You can be gay or straight, you can be a prude or a pervert, you can be a sucker for get-rich-quick-schemes or you can have an IQ greater than 10. It doesn't matter. If you have an Internet e-mail account and they have the address, you're on their list.

But how did I get on their list in the first place?
Well, you are a fair target to receive such e-mail if:
  • You have sent e-mail to a commercial establishment, perhaps to request product information;
  • You have filled out a form on a Web page somewhere, or mailed in a product registration form, including your e-mail address, and you did not check the little box marked "I do not wish to receive information by e-mail.";
  • There is a page on the World Wide Web somewhere (a Web site that has been indexed by one or more of the major search engines), that contains a "mailto:" link with your e-mail address;
  • You at some point posted a message to a newsgroup, with your e-mail address listed in the "From" or "Reply to" field;
  • You use America Online, whose mailing lists have by now either been hacked into or sold many times over.

Now, knowing this, and if you believe that wading through irrelevant mail will be a problem to you, you may wish to avoid doing these things. But it's already probably too late. If you're getting some spam to your e-mail address now, you will probably continue to get it, forever.

How Not To Be Seen

You could change your e-mail address, or get a new account with a new ISP, and notify all your friends and colleagues of your new address, asking them to guard it jealously. This time, you think, you'll avoid getting on the spam lists.

But being afraid to send e-mail to anyone except a trusted friend, and deciding never to post anything to a newsgroup, deprives you some very useful resources for communicating with your fellow creatures.

If you have a public web page, you really ought to include your e-mail address on it. But there are things you can do to reduce your susceptibility to having your address culled by the "bots" that the spammers use to scan the Web and the newsgroups for addresses.  For example, you can include your e-mail address on the Web page in plain text, or as a graphic element.

If I used only a picture, like this

an image containing the author's e-mail address


Don't be
of spam.
It's just
It can't
bite you.

to divulge my e-mail address, it is unlikely that a spammer would pick up on it. Of course, people who wanted to send me e-mail would have to type the address in by hand.  Blind users who rely on text-to-voice software would also be unable to contact me.

If you like to post messages to newsgroups or Web-based discussion boards, you might want to try modifying your "reply to" address in ways that are obvious to humans but opaque to the dumb "bots" that troll the newsgroups and Web looking for new spam-targets.

But making it harder for you to be found by spammers will also make it harder for you to be reached by people you want to write to you, for example to let you know what they think of your Web page or to answer the technical question you posted to a newsgroup. It would be sad if your efforts to keep your mailbox empty were too successful.

Didn't Congress pass a law that promised to stop Spam?

  They did.  It didn't, and it won't. 

Can I persuade these people not to send me their spam?

The worst thing you can do, it seems, is complain directly to the spammer.  Why?   First of all because if they really cared about not annoying people they would find a better way to market their product in the first place.  But more dangerously, the fact that you reply proves to them that that particular e-mail address is valid and is being read by a human being.  Your e-mail address is now (potentially) flagged as a "valid" address on their mailing lists, and is thus more valuable to the spammers.
On the other hand, many legitimate businesses and institutions do market via email, and want to be good citizens about it.  If the message  appears to be that kind of thing, and there are instructions at the bottom of the email telling you how to "opt out" from receiving future messages from them, they are probably sincere, and you can safety remove yourself from their list by following those instructions. 

Bottom line?  My advice is:  Learn to read quickly, and suppress your curiosity about what magical secret the anonymous author may have in store at the bottom of the message.  If you sense from the first sentence that it's a scam, believe me, it is ALWAYS a scam.  Hit the "X" button and move on.

Is it hopeless, then?

Not entirely.

Maybe you can't stop folks from sending you their garbage, but there are some options for keeping the spam they send from appearing in your Inbox mixed in with your REAL mail.  

For up-to-date information on these options, ask that nice man

But, when all is said and done, I have yet to find any solution that is as cost effective as this:

Ignore it, delete it, and forget it.