Anti-Spam Strategies

It’s still a challenge to separate welcome from unwanted e-mail.

August 1, 2005

Since I last discussed spam three years ago (see the March 2002 Tech Watch column), little has changed. Despite passage of the federal CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and state measures to stem the tide, unsolicited e-mail remains a vexing frustration for all e-mail users.

Like most users, you’re most likely wasting time each day sorting the wheat from the chaff in your in-box. On the flip side, you also recognize the value of e-mail for marketing and might be tempted to distribute messages that recipients might perceive as more spam.

How to Tackle Spam

Let’s focus on strategies for dealing with spam. (To learn ways to keep your marketing e-mails from being labeled spam, read the August 2005 Tech@work column in REALTOR® Magazine.) Common-sense practices to reduce unsolicited e-mail include:

  • Ignore junk messages. When obvious spam gets through—investment opportunities, medication sales, get-rich-quick schemes, great deals on a mortgage—delete without opening. And don’t click on embedded links, open attachments, or act on offers to unsubscribe. Each of these actions could inadvertently validate your e-mail address, at best, or launch an invasive virus, at worst.
  • Be wary of all requests for personal data. Some of the most dangerous spam arrives as requests for account verification from banks, credit cards, or online companies such as eBay and PayPal. This process is known as phishing. If an e-mail isn’t a direct response to correspondence you initiated, delete it.
  • Guard your information. Find out about a Web site’s privacy policy and how e-mail addresses are used, before submitting your e-mail information online. Web-based forms often ask if you’d like to receive information from the company or partners. Never check “yes,” and make sure the box isn’t automatically checked “yes” before you submit the form.
  • Code your address. Spammers use programs that generate random combinations of letters and words to find e-mail addresses. By using a combination of letters and numbers, your e-mail address may be invisible to these programs.
  • Report violations. Forward spam that gets through to your Internet service provider, network administrator, and the sender’s ISP, if identifiable. Include the entire message, with headers and source code.

Build on good practices with effective anti-spam products. Anti-spam solutions such as Norton Internet Security may already be built into your computer’s firewall, or filters may be available for e-mail applications such as Microsoft Outlook. If you don’t have the built-in options, you can purchase software programs such as McAfee’s SpamKiller or Web-based services such as OnlyMyEmail.

Depending on your e-mail volume and the number of people in your company, you also can opt to have network protection at the server level with software such as GFI MailEssentials or integrated hardware/software solutions such as the Barracuda Spam Firewall. Since ISPs guard the front in the spam assault, they too have anti-spam solutions in place. Before you implement an anti-spam solution on your desktop, find out what’s being done at the server or network level, how spam is identified, and any control options available to you.

Filtering Options

All anti-spam solutions feature some form of filtering to determine which e-mails get through and which don’t. These filters can be set to reject all e-mail messages containing certain words or phrases, or those arriving from a Web domain previously identified as a source of spam. A program like Qurb combines filtering with a “challenge response” option, which generates a request for verification from senders of e-mail it identifies as potential spam. Another approach, seen in a product like Spamlook, uses a process called Bayesian filtering to create a profile of the types of e-mail you reject as spam.

In addition to the different types of filters, most anti-spam solutions allow users the option of creating a white list of authorized e-mail addresses. Once activated, incoming messages that aren’t from authorized senders are treated as spam. Since computer viruses often hijack an unsuspecting e-mail user’s address book to spread themselves, even a white list can’t protect against some of the most dangerous spam.

Maintain Your Accessibility

For real estate professionals, the need to reduce unsolicited e-mails is balanced by the importance of receiving unsolicited e-mail from prospects. If you’re aggressive in your use of the Web, you encourage site visitors to contact you via e-mail at every turn. And they’re responding, which means you receive unexpected messages from unfamiliar sources all the time.

So, anti-spam strategies that work for a personal e-mail account or other businesses might not be as practical for real estate. How, then, can you strike the balance between your need to reduce or eliminate spam but also encourage inquiries? Here are some options:

  • Have multiple e-mail accounts. At minimum, set up separate e-mail accounts for personal and professional correspondence, with appropriate, but different levels of anti-spam measures employed in each.
  • Use e-mail forms. Using e-mail forms is better than using e-mail links on your Web site. When you provide site visitors with an e-mail form, including a pre-set subject heading, you make your e-mail address less vulnerable to spam and ensure prospects’ inquiries will get past any anti-spam measures you have in place. Spammers often employ software bots to search the Internet for valid e-mail addresses, which the bots can pull from e-mail links but not e-mail forms on your site.
  • Delete carefully. Have professional e-mail that is rejected by your anti-spam solution routed to a special folder, before it’s deleted. Diligently sort through the junk e-mail folder on a regular basis to make sure it doesn’t contain valid messages.

There’s no absolute way to eliminate spam yet. By taking a proactive stance, you can minimize its impact while ensuring those who want to reach you by e-mail can.

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