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Jim Davis, Editor
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Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Manage email spam, since you'll never be rid of it

Happy holidays! It's time to talk about spam again. And I won't make any jokes about meat products this time. Mainly because I find spam increasingly unfunny. Unsolicited email robs us of productive time, clogs up our servers and can potentially infect our computers and steal our personal information.

Electronic advertisers pay next to nothing for lists of names that have been scraped from websites or generated by robots. Content can be produced by anyone on a cheap PC. Even if emails are sent through legitimate servers, the cost is negligible. This allows spammers to make money if even a fraction of a percent of recipients actually buy anything. Of course, when was the last time you took an unsolicited email seriously? Even if it wasn't from a Nigerian prince?

Unfortunately, it's the dark side of spam that generates money for the bad guys. Messages that purport to be from a bank, credit card company or whatever. These “phishing” emails are trying to get you to give up personal information like account numbers, logins and passwords. Then there are emails that appear to be from trusted sources wanting you to click on a link to a funny video or something similar. Clicking the links generally gets you a virus or a series of never-ending websites.

The fact that there will always be a few people who fall for these email ploys means there's little hope the volume of spam in your inbox will decrease anytime soon. In fact, it will only get worse. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to make your email life a little more bearable.

Step one: I suggest you set up an email account solely for your junk mail. It can be a free account like Gmail or Live.com. Most ISPs let you create multiple addresses with your account as well. Then use this address for registering products, purchases, creating accounts for coupon sites, affiliate programs or any other site that is remotely related to marketing.

Step two: Create folders in your email program to store items you want to keep but don't always have time to read. In my case, I subscribe to lots of newsletters about tech stuff (go figure). I can then quickly move the items I want to save for later into a folder and get to them when it's convenient.

Step three: Create rules to sort your mail for you. Most mail programs like Outlook, Mac Mail and Thunderbird allow you to create rules. So do most popular Web mail programs. A rule is simply a filter that allows you to take an email and perform an action on it based on specific criteria. For example, I can create a rule that says “if a message's subject contains the word 'newsletter,' move it to my 'read later' folder.” You can create multiple conditions for rules in many programs and it can get a little crazy if you're not careful. Start slow and experiment.

Step four: Unsubscribe from legitimate email lists you don't want to be a part of. We've all had someone add us to their newsletter list without our permission, and if you buy anything online you're pretty much guaranteed to end up on a mailing list (see tip No. 1 above). Legitimate email delivery services like Constant Contact and MailChimp (to name two) will allow you to easily leave a mailing list. Just click “unsubscribe” and you're done.

Unfortunately, the illegitimate email marketers know these tricks, too. They change (or hijack) email addresses, mix up subject lines and use images as the body of the message — all to thwart rules. Clicking unsubscribe generally does nothing more than verify your address and ensure you will see even more spam in the future.

The bottom line: True spam will not go away any time soon. Use the tips above to keep your inbox as clean as possible, then just throw the rest away.

Do you have questions or suggestions on this (or any other) topic? Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/byteslavescomputing. I'll post some more thoughts on this subject there and on my blog at byteslaves.com.