Consumer IQ

Avoiding the Spam Scam: 5 Tips For Handling Unsolicited Email

If you think the spam epidemic is under control, then I have a check from Nigeria with your name on it.

I’m kidding; I don’t. But chances are pretty good that if you open your inbox – or if you’re using a more sophisticated email program, your “spam” box – that you’ll find an offer from African royalty, promising you a long-lost inheritance if you’ll just send a money order today.

Spam, or unsolicited email, is a massive and growing problem. In 2008, 76 trillion spam messages were sent to unsuspecting users, according to Royal Pingdom. It accounted for 70 percent of all emails. By 2010, it had skyrocketed to 107 trillion messages – nearly 90 percent of all emails sent.

Today’s spam is also getting smarter. It knows who are, what you like, and it targets you in a way that makes it seem almost personal. You need a new set of strategies to deal with it.

Know what spam looks like.

In olden days, spam was easy to spot. Headlines like, “Cheap Vi@gra” and “Lose Weight Now!” were dead giveaways. Today, a spam message can include your name. “Chris, Lose Weight Now!” – which can be enough to open it.  A recent study found 14 percent of users click unsolicited email messages, and a full four percent buy something.

Have a plan to deal with it.

Most email programs have some sort of spam filter. I’ve used Google’s GMail for several years, and it’s highly effective. Sometimes, it’s a little bit too aggressive, filtering out wanted messages and preventing me from sending .ZIP files, but it’s a sacrifice I’d gladly make for a squeaky-clean inbox. Other programs, including Outlook, Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail, also take a hard line on spam, and are worth considering

Don’t open it.

If you see spam, stay away from it. Don’t even open it. Why? Because the more of it you open and respond to, the more you encourage spammer. Think about it: If you ignored every unsolicited email, then what reason would the spammers have to spam you? And if you’re considering just taking a peek, try to restrain yourself. Some of the more sophisticated scammers can tell if you just click on a link, and track the response rate.

If you’re not sure, hit “delete.”

It’s better safe than sorry. So if you see a message that you think might be spam, don’t take a chance. If it’s a legit message, it will be sent again or the sender will contact you by phone or through a social network. Bottom line: It’s not worth taking a chance.

Report it.

Spam masters can continue inflicting their annoying messages on you when no one speaks up. You can report the messages to a third party like Spam Cop or to law enforcement agencies, like the Department of Justice. When enough people complain, governments crack down on these criminals. Just last year, for example, authorizes arrested Oleg Yegorovich Nikolaenko in Las Vegas. The so-called “king of spam” is believed to have been responsible for as much as one-third of the world’s unsolicited email.

Dealing with spam today requires a new set of strategies, including better email, understanding what the new spam looks like, and knowing that you should never come close to it.

Who knows, if everyone practiced safe email, we might be able to bring the spam problem under control?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.