Opening your inbox every morning, only to see it filled with spammy, unsolicited emails, is intimidating. The roots of today’s spam plague go back further than you might think. The very first spam email was sent in 1978, and the first modern mass-mail spam occurred in 1994. However, in recent years, the amount of spam has risen to account for over half of all emails sent.
Spam is not just an inconvenience: It also can represent a security threat. Spam emails are used to distribute malware, and scammers use them to solicit victims. Learning how to stop spam emails, or at least stem the tide, is a modern-day survival skill.
How to Stop Getting Spam Emails
You don’t need a lot of technical skills to reduce the amount of spam that makes it to your inbox. Most of the steps you need to take are relatively straightforward and require you to simply make full use of the features already built into your email software.
Out of all the tips available, we’ve narrowed them down to this high-impact handful.
1. “Train” Your Spam Filters
No matter which email platform you use, its spam filters work best if you help them a bit. Spam filters work on a handful of basic principles:
- They check for emails originating from dubious senders or known spammers;
- They check the content and subject line for words commonly used in spam emails; or
- They flag emails containing an unusual number of links, graphics and code snippets.
These are all valid techniques, but – as with antivirus programs – they need constant updates to keep up with the ever-increasing number of spammers and scammers. Help train your spam filters by taking a few moments to flag spam emails when they do make it to your inbox. Doing so has a couple of benefits. First, it helps create a set of filters to find spammers that are infiltrating your personal email account. Secondly, it provides data your email provider can use to update its main filters, helping to keep them current.
Training goes in both directions, though, so frequently review your “spam” or “junk” folder as well. It’s always irritating when an important email you’ve been waiting for turns out to have been in your spam folder all along. After you’ve marked these as “not spam” a few times, they should turn up in your inbox where they belong.
2. Keep Your Main Email Address Private
This doesn’t mean you should never give out your primary personal email address, just that you should be selective about it. If your email address isn’t mandatory on that web form, don’t provide it. If it’s required, ask yourself how badly you want to complete this particular “free signup.” Often, sites exist primarily to generate email leads for sales and marketing purposes. If you can get the same information or read the same content elsewhere without setting up a free account, don’t bother.
Also avoid putting your email on buy and sell sites, social media or anywhere else it’ll be publicly viewable. Any email address that’s out there in plain text can (and usually will) be “scraped” from the site by a bot and end up on a marketing list.
3. Use a Separate Email for Signups
One of the best ways to stop spam emails is to have an alternate email address to use for signups. This can be a second address through your business or personal email provider, a free email from a web-based service like gmail or Yahoo mail, or even a “disposable” email address from a specialist provider.
It’s a pretty straightforward idea. When you need to sign up for a new service or a new site, use your alternative email instead of the main one. You can check that alternative email inbox periodically for any emails you actually do want to see, or set up a filter to forward them automatically to your main inbox.
You can even use these tools to identify which sites are responsible for spamming you or selling your email address. Some services let you create a unique email for each signup – in gmail, for example, simply add a plus sign along with a unique identifier, such as “+not_trusted” to your email address. This will show up on every email you get from that source, which makes them easy to spot ‒ and track. In the event that an email input form does not permit inclusion of a plus sign, Gmail users can put as many periods in their usernames as they like — all messages will go to the same inbox.
4. Learn to Identify Senders
Spammers and scammers often use email addresses that “spoof” or closely resemble legitimate emails from major companies, or they may appear to have come from a friend or acquaintance. Other emails are simply from unknown senders, which may or may not be legitimate. You can check the legitimacy of an email before you flag it as spam.
Emails include identifying information referred to as “headers,” which ordinarily get hidden. The header includes the sender’s return email address and IP address, among other markers. If you want to identify a persistent spammer, you can quickly find out how to reveal the headers in your particular email program. Headers can be forged, but if those in your suspect email don’t match those in a legit email from that company or service, that’s a definite red flag.
Users with technical knowledge can chase down a sender’s approximate real-world location through its IP address, which is part of the header. Otherwise, it’s simpler to use Spokeo’s Reverse Email Lookup to search for information about the sender.
5. Use “Block Sender.” A Lot.
Reporting an email as spam means your email provider should, and probably will, send any future emails from the same sender to your spam folder. If you want to make extra-sure, you can also manually block them from your own inbox.
The exact directions vary, depending on which email client you use, but the process is fairly similar on all of them. Usually, you either right-click somewhere within the message to find an option to block the sender, or in some popular mail, you’ll find an option to block a sender somewhere in the menu.
A more powerful option is to block the entire domain, which is the part of the email that appears after the @ symbol. Spammers often use multiple email addresses from a single domain as a means of getting around spam filters, and this nips them all in the bud. Again, directions vary depending on your email client, but usually – instead of a single, specific email address – you’ll enter the domain name alone in a form that looks like @suspect_domain.com. Individual blocked emails and all emails from blocked domains will be routed to your spam folder.
6. Use a Third-Party Spam-Blocking Service
If you’ve ever had a friend read over your presentation or term paper to find mistakes, you know the truth of the old saying that “two heads are better than one.” The same basic principle holds true for spam filters. The ones your email service provider provides are usually pretty effective, but adding a second level of protection means you can weed out any additional unwanted emails.
Plenty of third-party apps and services are available, both free and paid, so just search for what you want. A basic search along the lines of “free/paid spam filter for [X],” in which an X represents the name of your OS or email provider, or “best spam filter for business,” usually does the trick. Some go the extra mile and report dodgy spammers to your internet service provider, so they block them before they even reach your own filters.
7. Screen for Tracking Pixels
Have you ever wondered why some email clients block pictures from loading? It’s because a very sneaky piece of code called a “tracking pixel,” a very small image (often just 1 pixel square) is usually (though not always) embedded into a conventional image in the email. When you open the email and display the image, it “phones home” to the sender to tell them that the email has been opened, as well as – possibly – your location at the time, the device you’re using, or even the length of time you had the email open.
This is bad on a number of levels. For one thing, it shows spammers and scammers that your email address is valid and is being read by a human. Congratulations – you’ve just joined their target list!
To avoid tracking pixels, set your email to block remote images. Again, learning how to do this in your own email is a matter of hitting the provider’s help page or doing a simple online search. In many browsers or email programs, you can also install an extension that will flag incoming emails that conceal a tracking pixel, so you know not to open them. You’ll have to manually click to show the images in your legitimate emails, but that’s a modest inconvenience compared to a blizzard of spam.
8. Never, Ever Reply to Spam or Click a Link
Two of the biggest mistakes you can make are replying to a spammy email or clicking a link contained in one. Doing so marks you as someone who’s willing to engage and opens you to a whole other level of pain. In addition to filling your inbox with unsolicited mail, you’ll make yourself vulnerable to fraud and identity theft. Scammers may also use an email link to infect your computer with viruses, keyloggers and other forms of malware.
The best thing to do with suspect emails is never to open them at all, and the second-best is to close them once you’ve reported them as spam and blocked the sender.
Bonus Tip: Coping With Newsletters and Other Subscriptions
A lot of the clutter in your inbox isn’t technically spam; instead, it’s legitimate marketing materials and newsletters. Consumer-protection laws like CAN-SPAM make it harder to get your permission by subterfuge and allow you to withdraw your permission. Each mailer usually includes an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom for your convenience. It’s safest to look up the unsubscribe link on the company’s actual website, just in case the email you’re looking at is a fake that’s been “spoofed” and has a malicious link.
For regular mailers you still want to receive but don’t want cluttering your inbox every day, you can set up inbox filters to route them to a folder of your choice. It’s a powerful feature.
It’s an Ongoing Challenge
No matter how diligent you are about following these tips and the many others, you’ll probably always receive some spam emails. No matter how good the filters become or how diligently you flag spam when you find it, the spammers and scammers will continue to find ways to get through to your inbox.
As with any other part of your online life, proactively handling your inbox tilts the odds in your direction. You’ll have more control, not only over the quantity of spam that gets through, but also in managing how they’re handled once they arrive. It’s not a perfect solution, but you’ll find that a well-managed inbox helps you stay more productive, reduces your vulnerability to scammers, and keeps your annoyance levels at a minimum.