Like rain, spam is unstoppable, but we can open our umbrellas

J.B. Miles

When I came home on a recent Tuesday afternoon after a three-day weekend, I found 127 e-mail messages in my inbox. Four were from friends or family, four contained information I had requested from computer vendors, and two were from online newsletters I subscribe to.

The remaining 117 e-mails included two from my 'friend' the Nigerian army colonel asking for help in getting $80 million out of the country, a couple of porn site ads and a whole bunch of offers to boost my income by $10,000 per month.

Spam, spam, wonderful spam.

Up to then, I'd considered spam more of an inconvenience than a real problem. I didn't want to miss something important and usually scanned most of the mail I received unless I could definitely tell it was junk. But my carefree attitude has come to an end.

One of the messages I opened on that fateful Tuesday apparently contained a worm or virus. My e-mail service slowed, then crawled, then stopped. My Microsoft Word and Excel applications became buggy. Finally, my entire Windows operating system shut down.

If you're a typical office worker, chances are good that a departmental server or firewall eliminates a lot of unsolicited e-mail before you ever see it. But if you work at home or a remote office, you're vulnerable.

There are a number of ways to fight spam, though none is foolproof.

By analyzing a spammer's e-mail header with software such as Sam Spade for Windows, at www.samspade.org, you can often find out where the offending mail originated and then contact the spammer's Internet service provider to register a complaint. Most providers frown on spam'particularly illicit messages'broadcast from their domains, and might act to shut it down.

If you have the time and energy, you can report spam to organizations like Spamcop.net at www.spamcop.net, Spamhaus.org at www.spamhaus.org, Abuse.net at www.abuse.net, or the Mail Abuse Prevention System at www.mail-abuse.org. Each of these organizations maintain blacklists that let you block e-mail from a spammer.

You also can fight back by using your addresses strategically. Most Internet providers allow between three and seven free e-mail addresses with your basic account, so sign up for all of them and reserve one for business, one for family and friends, and so on.

Use the extra addresses when you register at chat rooms, shopping sites or online surveys, which often are where spammers get their lists. When the address fills up with spam, stop using it.

You also could use disposable e-mail address software, which lets you use an alias that will route mail to your real account but act as a buffer.

And here are some common-sense tips.

First, resist the temptation to open any e-mail unless you're sure of its source'even if you are, watch out for attachments that might contain a worm or virus.

Second, never respond to a spammer's message. That shows your address is valid, and he'll keep sending spam.

Third, be careful about unsubscribing. Good e-mail marketers will take your address off their lists, but unscrupulous ones won't. Once I tried to remove my name from a message titled 'If You're Fat and Over Forty' by typing 'unsubscribe' on the subject line. The result? The number of e-mail messages promising to solve my weight problem (I didn't know I had one) tripled in a week.

As I said, no antispam measure is perfect.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@hilobay.com.

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