How to manage spam

Spam rivals computer viruses as one of today's biggest problems at the Unsolicited e-mail accounts for the majority of online traffic, clogging up in-trays, slowing down mail servers, and wasting people’s time.
Written by Clarence Cho, Contributor

The average e-mail user gets about 50 unsolicited commercial e-mails a week. Large Internet service providers (ISPs) such as America Online, deal with as many as one billion e-mails a day. Chinese authorities estimate that 47 billion items of spam were received in that country alone last year. Spam costs money, in extra bandwidth, lost productivity and the additional equipment, software, and manpower needed to combat the problem.

Spammers harvest e-mail addresses using many devious means. They use special software to scan newsgroups, Web sites, and Web forums, and they can also buy lists of e-mail addresses very cheaply. In addition, a single spammer can easily send more than 10 billion e-mails a year.

Many countries, including the U.S., Korea, Japan, Australia and the European Community have legislated against spam, but because the Internet is global and spammers can easily hide their identity, laws are not enough. In Asia, spammers have begun targeting mobile phones with spam SMS messages.

China is the fastest growing computer market in the world, and Chinese the fastest growing language. Not surprisingly, spam is becoming a major problem in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

We cannot eliminate spam 100 percent, but we can reduce it substantially.

China's Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has announced it will introduce China’s first antispam laws in 2004. The law will make service providers responsible for spam. The Asia-Pacific Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (APCAUCE) meets every six months to discuss ways of reducing spam in the region. Details of its proceedings are published at www.apcauce.org.

We cannot eliminate spam 100 percent, but we can reduce it substantially. Your e-mail provider may provide a spam filter, or you could use a specialist antispam product such as SpamSubtract or I Hate Spam. The latest version of Microsoft Outlook (Outlook 2003) also contains a built-in spam filter. But by far the best way to fight spam is to keep it from arriving in your inbox in the first place.

How to manage spam

Here's how:
1. Don't post your e-mail address online more than you need to. You can try to disguise your e-mail address if you post in such places. Instead of jane-doe@something.com, you could type jane-doe(at sign)something(dot)com.

2. Don’t give out your e-mail address unless you know how it will be used. Read the Web site’s privacy policy (a comprehensive example is HP's Online Privacy Statement at the bottom of the HP home page) – if they don’t have a privacy statement, you probably shouldn’t trust them with your e-mail.

3. Never, ever buy anything advertised in spam. Even if you happen to be looking for a lower mortgage rate, don’t look for it in junk e-mail. The services advertised are often bogus anyway. Respected suppliers don’t randomly flood inboxes.

4. Never use an “unsubscribe” option on a spam e-mail. These are usually just ways to verify your e-mail address.

Putting up defenses
Most e-mail providers have options for blocking HTML and images so you can avoid seeing potentially offensive pictures in your e-mail. Plus, some images and graphics in e-mail actually alert the sender that you've opened the message, which verifies that your email address is active.

You should also consider introducing an e-mail usage policy in your organisation. You can write one yourself, or download one from sites such as www.email-policy.com or the Cyberspace Law Institute (www.cli.org).

E-mail policies can be as simple as a few bullet points, or they can be a long legal document. The nature of the policy and the way it will be implemented will vary from one organization to another depending on their needs, but a typical policy will contain such details as:

  • Content: what types of information should be sent by e-mail. It is usual to prohibit libellous or obscene material, or confidential company information.
  • Unsolicited material: how to deal with spam and unwanted e-mail.
  • Copying and forwarding: guidelines on who should get which messages and what action should be taken
  • Form and structure: guidelines on the style of e-mail, how people should be addressed, how e-mails should be signed.
  • Personal e-mail: guidelines on usage of e-mail for personal use. Few organizations prohibit it entirely.
  • Disclaimer:a preferred message that should be placed at the bottom of each e-mail. For example: “This message is intended only for [recipient name or e-mail address]. If you are not the intended recipient you are notified that disclosing, copying, distributing or taking any action on the contents of this information is strictly prohibited”.

E-mail usage policies should be made clear to all users of the system, and agreement to the policies should be made a condition for using the system. If e-mail is monitored, the extent of the monitoring should be made known to all users.

A good e-mail usage policy will help minimize spam by ensuring correct procedures are followed. It also has many other advantages, easing e-mail communications within and outside the organisation.

E-mail has become an indispensable business tool. But, like most tools, there are ways to use it well and ways to use it badly. A spam reduction campaign, allied with a sound e-mail usage policy, will maximize your organisation’s ability to use e-mail effectively.

Clarence Cho is director of SMB marketing for HP Asia Pacific. Cho is a member of CNETAsia's SMB Advisory Board.

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