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How to Tackle E-Mail Abuse

By Charles Hopkins Published 06/2/2006 | Internet

How many e-mails do you get every day that offers to sell you medicine without prescription, and at a fraction of their real cost? How many offers do you get to buy pirate software at one-tenth of their catalog prices? Do you find your inbox so full of unwanted, unsolicited e-mail that you can't find the useful mail? Do you spend several minutes or hours everyday downloading mail that ultimately turns out to be useless? If you answer 'yes' to any of the above, then you are the victim of e-mail abuse, commonly known as 'spam'.

Spam mail is a booming business on the internet, and it is growing every day. Thousand of millions of unwanted e-mail are released every day, though only a fraction of that ever reaches actual addresses. Who does it, and why? And what can you do about it?

Spammers are clever technicians who have found out a way of sending mail in great bulks to thousand of addresses at once. They sometimes set up their own mail servers, but they can also use the service of other people's servers without their knowledge. The dominant method of sending e-mail is known as SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), and by default this service doesn't have a way to authenticate the sender of an e-mail. So free mail servers on the internet often accept mail from anyone, and relay it to other servers. This type of freely accessible SMTP server is known as an 'open relay' an is one of the greatest nuisances on the internet. They are a free ball for spammers.

But that's only how they send mail. But how did they get your address in the first place? You sure didn't write to any of them!

There are two answers to that. First, they own certain software that acts like scavengers, scouring the web looking for anything that looks like an e-mail address. Whatever they can gather, they save in a central database. Then these are auctioned off to bidders, who want to send you unwanted advertisements. Sending e-mail barely entails any recurring cost, so if even 1% of all victims of spam click on the links provided, the spammers stand to make huge profits.

The second answer is, they don't have any idea that you exist. They are just using a random string-generating program that churns out billions of possible e-mail addresses. Only a fraction of that number actually represents valid e-mails, but as has been said above, sending e-mail is cheap. They can afford to send ten thousand e-mails even if only one of them is real.

What can you do to avoid spam? First, get a really good e-mail program, for instance the freely downloadable Thunderbird. Good e-mail programs have an inherent ability to recognize spam and delete them before they ever reach your inbox. Secondly, report spams to your Internet Service Provider, so that they can set up appropriate filters to differentiate the good from the bad.

These simple steps can go a long way to help you tackle e-mail abuse.