Spammers are the highwaymen of the Internet. Their amoral abuse of email inboxes, blog comments and search engine criteria cost us all bandwidth, time and energy that would be better devoted to taking care of our customers. It’s been estimated that in excess of 90% of all email sent is spam. This adds up to trillions of emails every year, and together costs American businesses tens of billions of dollars. Clearly, it’s more than a nuisance.
Fortunately, there are some good tools available that can help you to deal with this deluge in your own inbox. All of the major email systems on the market have some form or another of spam detection. Most of these shunt suspicious messages into a separate repository from your main inbox. Of course, since these systems are automated, their ability to discern what is spam and what is a legitimate message can be imperfect. In addition to the costs of storage and transmission, plus the occasional irritant of having to nuke a spam that made it through your spam filters, we must also consider the costs of legitimate messages lost in those same filters.
So, what is to be done? Email has become a critical piece of business infrastructure for most of us, and a systemic attack on that infrastructure is obviously a serious threat to our businesses. Unfortunately, as motivated as we might be to stop spam, the bad guys are at least as motivated to find ways through our defenses. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with spam in your own business:
- Never do business with a spammer. This falls under the “it goes without saying” category, but it bears repeating anyway. Studies show that somewhere around 40% of spams that make it through filters are actually opened by the recipients. This can often be detected by the spammer, alerting them to the fact that the recipient’s email address is current and active. And, it only takes one or two sales (or suckers taken in by fraudulent schemes) for a spam to millions of recipients to turn a profit.
- Use the best available filters. In my experience, Gmail’s filters are highly reliable, both in terms of keeping bad mail out, and letting good mail in. As in so many other arenas, Google uses the staggering volume of data at their disposal to constantly improve their filtering technologies. Spammers are clever, resourceful and determined, though, so it is a constant back-and-forth struggle. Many other vendors use sophisticated algorithms to detect the characteristics of spam messages, too, but it’s hard to argue with Google’s price (free).
- Don’t send spam. Another obvious one, but there can be a bit of a grey area here. Basically, the bare minimum standard you should accept for assembling your email lists is that you only send to folks with whom you have an established business relationship. The gold standard is that you not only have that relationship, but you also ask them explicitly whether or not you may include them in your newsletter or other list-based messages.
The postal mail practice of buying mailing lists to advertise to does not extend to email – with postal mail, you are bearing nearly all of the costs, while with email, your recipient is typically incurring a much greater expense than you are.
- Stop spam at the source. It’s been my experience that, as valuable as having a contact form on your site is, spammers will take advantage of it as a direct route into your email box. Also, if you post your email address on your contact page as a convenience to your visitors, spammers will take undue advantage of that courtesy. Fortunately, there are technologies available to mitigate this class of spam.
By incorporating a “CAPTCHA” (“Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) into your contact form, you can defeat most spammers, who aren’t usually sitting at their keyboards looking at your site, but are instead sending software scouting around the Internet to find contact forms. Since that software has a hard time reading distorted letters and numbers, you can usually be pretty certain that a message that makes it past a CAPTCHA was actually sent by a human being.
Similarly, there are means available to make your email address readable by humans but difficult for a computer to “see” and add to the spammers’ mailing lists.
Upon further reflection, I think that spammers may be more akin to the bacteria of the Internet ecosystem, but fortunately, that ecosystem is resilient and well-defended. By taking a few relatively easy measures, you can reduce the damage they do to you and your business. There is probably nothing that can be done to eliminate spam entirely, but you can make it at least a manageable, if chronic, problem.
Please feel free to contact me if you’d like any help with any of these measures – I’m very happy to help, as I detest spam, and have been in the vanguard of the battle against it for decades.