Trash the spam: how to achieve a (nearly) junk-free inbox

CONSUMER: I receive dozens of spam e-mail messages every day. They're a nuisance! What can I do?

ATTORNEY GENERAL ROB MCKENNA: The recent arrest of "Spam King" Robert Alan Soloway by the United States Attorney's Office in Seattle came as a relief to many consumers and those in the tech security community. Soloway is accused of sending millions of spam messages and faces 35 criminal counts, including aggravated identity theft.

But many other spammers are still out there attempting to infiltrate our inboxes. Unscrupulous marketers clog up servers with junk ads. Identity thieves target your e-mail account with phishing scams that appear to come from your bank. Cons claiming to be wealthy foreigners plead for your assistance in transferring funds.

Studies show that billions of spam messages are sent over the Internet every day. Internet service providers intercept many of these bothersome messages before they ever reach your computer. But as spammers become more sophisticated at disguising their identities and develop new tactics to slip past filters - like using graphics instead of text - it becomes increasingly difficult to block all unwanted and illegal messages.

Spammers obtain your e-mail address through a variety of methods, including buying contacts from a list broker, "harvesting" addresses from the Internet and simply guessing. You can reduce the amount of spam you receive by taking some precautions:

* Don't reply to spam. By replying, the spammer knows that your e-mail address is active and that you actually open spam messages. This makes you a prime target to receive more spam.

• Use a spam filter. Any reputable e-mail software should provide a tool to block potential spam or route junk mail to a separate folder. You can purchase additional filters on their own or as part of a suite with virus protection software.

• Avoid displaying your e-mail address online. If your e-mail address appears in a newsgroup posting, on a Web page, in a chat room or an on-line service's membership directory, it may find its way onto a spammer's contact list.

• Read privacy policies as well as the entire form before you transmit personal information. Information you provide when you buy online, fill out a survey or contest entry, or submit your e-mail address to a Web site may be dumped into a marketing database and sold to prospective marketers. Some Web sites allow you to opt out of receiving email from their "partners" - but you may have to uncheck a pre-selected box.

• Make it more difficult for spammers to find or guess your e-mail address.

• Use multiple e-mail addresses or a disposable e-mail address service. Don't use your primary account to sign up for anything. Create a separate address for newsgroups, chat rooms and e-commerce than the one you use for personal messages. You might also want to consider using a disposable e-mail address service that creates a separate address that forwards to your permanent account. If one of the disposable addresses begins to receive spam, you can shut it off.

• Use a unique, long or complicated e-mail address. Spammers sometime simply guess your e-mail address by choosing a domain name and plugging in likely user names. Try to make your address as difficult to guess as possible. Of course, there is a downside: it's harder to remember an unusual address.

• Encode your e-mail address. If you display your e-mail address on your own Web site or blog, you can encode it so that visitors who want to send you an email can see it, but not spambots - programs designed to collect e-mail addresses from the Internet. A number of software programs are available to cloak your address using images, JavaScript, HTML character entities and other ciphering tools.

• Disguise your e-mail address in newsgroups, forums, blog comments and chat rooms. If my e-mail address were, I could modify it to read All messages sent to the address would bounce, but people who want to send me e-mail would hopefully realize that they could do so by cutting out the words "DELETE-THIS."

• Assume mail from unknown senders is spam. If you receive a message that says "Hello, why I haven't heard from you?" and you don't recognize the e-mail in the "from" line, assume it's spam. Your home account probably doesn't receive much traffic from folks you don't know, so consider setting your filters so that messages from friends and family are routed to your inbox. Send the rest to junk mail, and check the folder periodically.

• Don't open unknown attachments. Many viruses and worms are spread through e-mail attachments. If you didn't request it, don't open it.

• Maintain your security software. Some viruses and worms e-mail themselves to all of the contacts in your address book and mail folders. Others hijack your computer and transform it into a "spam zombie" capable of being manipulated by a spammer at a proxy computer. Ensure that your virus protection, anti-spyware and firewall programs are up-to-date and perform regular system scans.

• Contact online directories and request that they remove your name, e-mail address and other personal information from their databases. Visit the Web site, click on the "contact us" link and then request that your information be removed.


Spam can be divided into two categories: legal and illegal. State law outlaws unsolicited commercial e-mail that has been addressed in a false or misleading way. The federal CAN-Spam Act requires that unsolicited commercial e-mail be clearly identified as such and that consumers be able to opt-out of receiving more e-mails.

If you receive deceptive spam, send a copy to:

• The Federal Trade Commission at
• Your ISP's abuse desk
• The sender's ISP.
• The attorney general's office

In all cases, it's important to include the full e-mail header. A "friendly" header contains the "from," "to" and "subject" lines, while the full header includes additional important details about the origin of the message. The Attorney General's Web site provides instructions on how to find the full header.

Rob McKenna serves at the attorney general to the state of Washington. To suggest a future topic for this column, send an e-mail to or write to "Ask the AG", Attorney General's Office, 800 5th Ave. Suite 2000, Seattle, WA 98104-3188. Previous columns are online at

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