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Written on April 23, 2004 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Does the volume of SPAM, the electronic equivalent of junk mail, in your in-box seem to be increasing? A recent study determined that spam represents 32% of all e-mails sent in North America every day. The amount of spam has doubled since 2001, and some experts believe it is increasing exponentially, not linearly.

Fighting spam is now a costly undertaking. Spam costs everyone in lost productivity, as people try to sort out their legitimate e-mails from the junk. Spam ties up traffic on networks, servers, and in-boxes. Your company and your Internet Service Provider (ISP) must either purchase additional resources to handle the increased traffic or suffer with slow response times. Anyone who manages a computer system will tell you they spend significant amounts of money and time trying to protect their systems so their users can benefit from the legitimate use of the Internet.

Viruses are often imbedded in the spam messages, making security an important issue. Keeping your anti-virus software up to date is now almost a full-time job. Most experts recommend updating your software every day, and even more often during major attacks. In some large companies, updating every hour isn't often enough to stop incoming attacks!

What can you do to protect your computer and spend less time dealing with spam?

Update regularly - Step 1. Your anti-virus software needs to be able to identify threats and block them before they take over your computer and spread to other users. When you purchase anti-virus software, you get a free subscription to all the updates for a year. After that, you pay a small fee for the update service. If you manage your own computer, download the updates for your system as soon as they become available. If your computer is not set up to detect updates automatically, make sure you check regularly and frequently for updates and install them.

Update regularly - Step 2. Microsoft supplies security patches and other updates to its operating systems, free of charge, for as long as the operating system is supported. At the moment, all operating systems since Windows 98 are supported. On newer computers, you will be advised automatically that updates are available (a globe will appear in your Icon tray by the clock in the lower right corner of your screen). On older computers, on the Start menu there will be an option "Windows Update" (it should be near the top). Click on this item and follow the instructions. Make sure to install all updates indicated as "critical". Microsoft updates should be installed at least once per month.

Refuse to download unknown programs. Games, screensavers, and free programs from unknown sources are frequently sources of viruses. Just say no.

Delete suspicious e-mail messages. If you don't recognize the sender's name, delete the e-mail. Don't even open it. If there is an attachment, don't open that either. Just delete the e-mail. If it is important, the person will try to contact you by other means.

Keep it simple. Fancy e-mail scripts, embedded images, and other unusual formats make it hard for spam filters to recognize spam and detect viruses.

Use common sense. If you are sending an e-mail to a large list of contacts, use the BCC (blind carbon copy) feature rather than listing everyone in the "To" field. Spammers can intercept your message; copy the e-mail addresses of your contacts, and then sell those addresses to other spammers. The BCC option conceals their e-mail addresses.

Ignore "unsubscribe" options. You would think that this would be a legitimate way to remove yourself from spam lists. It should be, but it isn't. All it does is confirm that yours is a valid, active e-mail address that is read. Spammers get paid more money for supplying known active addresses; so all you do when you "unsubscribe" is help put yourself on more lists!

Refuse to buy products or services sold by spam. If a product or service catches your eye, find another way to contact the company and make your purchase. If possible, find the same product or service from another firm that doesn't market by spam. Be warned: many offers sent by spam are fraudulent schemes to part you from your money.

Avoid banner ads. Don't click or go near banner ads. Spammers get paid if you do!

Use a separate address. If you like to enter on-line contests, fill out surveys, or complete web registration forms, set up a separate e-mail address (use a free one like HotMail) to use in these situations. Then the spam will go to your secondary address, keeping your main address relatively spam-free.

Use Anti-Spam filters. Many security programs, such as Norton Anti-Virus, have spam filters. Any e-mail received from someone not in your e-mail contact list will be put in a separate folder marked Spam. You can then review the Spam folder, delete the unknown messages and move the legitimate messages to the correct folder. The software attempts to learn what is Spam and what isn't. You may find this feature makes receiving your messages incredibly slow if your computer is an older model, so you may want to turn this feature off.

In recent weeks, there has been a crackdown against spammers. In the US, a new law (CAN-Spam) became effective January 1, 2004 that regulates how marketers can send spam. In Canada, two spammers from Kitchener were arrested - it is alleged they were responsible for a huge volume of spam traffic. Despite these efforts, it is unlikely that legislation will eliminate or control spam. Spammers will move to countries that don't have strong laws or strong enforcement and continue their profitable activities.

So, it is up to each of us to do our part to stop the spread of spam. Good luck!

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