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Personal Finance > Saving and Spending
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Is your inbox is out of control?
graphic November 16, 2001: 11:06 a.m. ET

Junk e-mail, or spam, can easily find its way to your inbox.
By Annelena Lobb
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  • Trash your junk mail
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    NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Remember the good old days when the term "spam" referred to canned lunch meat? When people say spam now, you probably think of the unsolicited commercial e-mail that fills your inbox and makes it difficult to find the messages you really want to read.

    While a lot of people just patiently ignore or delete unwanted messages, many others find the deluge frustrating to the point of rage. According to Brightmail Inc., a San Francisco-based company that makes products to improve e-mail efficiency and security, about 15 percent of the messages their clients received in the past month were unsolicited commercial e-mails. Their clients include Internet service providers such as AT&T Worldnet, Earthlink and Excite. According to a study by the European Commission in February, spam costs Internet subscribers about $9.4 billion a year in connection costs.

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    It's tougher to avoid spam than it is get rid of junk mail or telemarketing calls, due in large part to a lack of legislation, said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a New Jersey-based company that tries to stop all unwanted consumer solicitations. While Congress has outlawed junk faxes, for example, nothing in the books criminalizes junk e-mail.

    "There's an absence of consumer rights and a large number of small actors who are mostly criminals," Catlett said. "Dealing with them is like swatting flies one by one, rather than putting up a fence to keep out all the dogs."

    Who sends commercial e-mail?

    First of all, make sure you know what spam is - and what it isn't. Spam refers to the unsolicited messages you get, usually trying to sell you something - anything from work-at-home schemes to Viagra. E-mail newsletters or announcements that you knowingly signed up for are generally not considered spam.

    According to Mickey Chandler, the president and legislative liaison for the Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-mail, there are two types of people running spam lists: those who don't know that people hate it and those who just don't care.

    Some legitimate businesses send unsolicited sales pitches because they simply haven't done the research to know that the majority of Internet users dislike it. They also may not know that sending spam is a violation of almost every ISP's terms of service agreement. In many cases, these businesses received spam themselves, and thought, everybody else is doing this - why can't we?

    Someone who's running a scam, on the other hand, may know that most Internet users dislike spam, and that sending it violates their contract with their ISP - but they may not care. Some spammers argue that the First Amendment overrides their contractual agreement and others just assume they can get away with it, Chandler said.

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    But there are businesses sending commercial e-mail that receivers have signed up for and consented to receive. Submit Express Inc. is a Glendale, Calif.-based company that sends what are termed "double opt-in" e-mails - i.e., e-mails tailored toward people who have requested the information and then verified their request for information in very specific categories.

    "The e-mails that we send are highly refined and topics range from banking to medical treatments. It's not unsolicited spam e-mail, and we believe it provides a valuable service to the people who are on the list," said Clarke Walton, vice president of marketing for Submit Express. "With adamant ferocity, we discourage any type of spamming. We are very committed to ensuring that the people who receive our information actually want it."

    spam lists: getting on and staying off

    According to Chandler, the most common way for spam companies to gather email addresses is to through the automated scanning of Web pages and on-line discussion group postings. Spammers use programs called "harvesters" that comb Web pages, looking for "mailto" links and the "from" fields of USENET news posts. Some harvesters will peruse the text of a USENET post and search for e-mail addresses in the standard "username@domain" format.

    Catlett said spammers also send e-mail to "probable" e-mail accounts, like combinations of common names, initials and birthdays (think john@...), a technique known as "dictionary spamming."

    In fact, if you open an account with a username someone had before you, you can even receive their "legacy spam" - which may have been why they closed the account in the first place.

    Unfortunately, there is no assured way to get yourself off a spam list.

    "If there were a good, user-level solution out there, we wouldn't be so worried about passing anti-spam legislation," said John Mozena, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE). "ISPs can filter and block hosts who send almost nothing but spam, but at the user level there isn't much you can do that also wouldn't affect legitimate e-mail."

    For now, be a wise Internet user and do what you can to cover your bases.

    There is one thing you definitely shouldn't do. Don't use an opt-out feature in an e-mail you never asked to receive in the first place, Catlett said. Most spam has an opt-out instruction, asking you to e-mail the sender if you don't want further mailings. In some cases, the sender's address is fraudulent and the message just bounces back to you - in other cases, though, your e-mail address just goes on a list of "confirmed" e-mail addresses targeted for future "spam."

    In trying to opt out, all you've done is verify that you actually read the message and that your e-mail address is active. Instead of "opting out," you've essentially "opted in" for more spam. (Obviously, this doesn't apply to legitimate e-mail announcements you may have subscribed to.)

    Chandler advised spam victims to notify their ISPs. All of the major ISPs have a clause stating that spamming is a violation and can result in the termination of the spammer's account. A spammer is unlikely to heed a recipient telling them to stop, but might pay attention to an ISP threatening to remove their account from service.

    To try and prevent spam, make sure your address doesn't get posted in a public place in cyberspace, Catlett said. Having a Web site or registering for a domain name can also be problematic, as it makes you an easy target for spammers. graphic

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    Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.

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