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Got Spam? Stop it Before it Strikes Your Mailbox

By Bob Parsons
Tuesday, September 2, 2003; 4:00pm EST

Once upon a time on the Internet, when you saw the little envelope, or heard, �You�ve got mail,� you got a warm fuzzy feeling. As time, technology, and the popularity of the Internet and e-mail for business use progressed, most e-mail is no longer from your best friend � or even your business colleague. Now, it�s from someone trying to sell you a million-dollar business proposition or maybe a miracle pill, among other obscene and potentially virus-laden messages.

It is estimated that the average U.S.-based office worker must sift through up to 100 pieces of �spam,� unsolicited bulk mail, everyday. Spam is an inexpensive and easy way to advertise to a vast audience. Today, an estimated 50 percent of all e-mails handled by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are spam. And believe it or not, this is expected to increase to the point where the majority of e-mail is in fact spam.

Who pays to handle all this junk mail? In a word, you! Because your ISP has to invest in the cost of equipment and resources to handle this junk, the cost gets passed along in your monthly Internet bill. More importantly for small business owners, you also pay for spam with the most precious commodity you have � your time.

The burden of spam and its associated costs have drawn the attention of our legislators who have introduced several anti-spam bills to Congress, including the Reduction in Distribution (RID) of Spam Act of 2003. This bill, if passed, would require all commercial e-mail messages to be identified as such (including a standard label for unsolicited sexually explicit messages), and include the sender�s physical address and an opt-out mechanism. It would also prohibit the use of false or misleading headers in commercial messages.

Currently, 35 states have anti-spam laws on the books that come in the form of regulating opt-out procedures, requiring subject-line labels or merely regulating falsification of message headers. While a governing body that oversees commercial e-mail is nonexistent, the Federal Trade Commission is spearheading the development of federal standards to protect you from spam. At a recent conference, FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris called spam �one of the most daunting consumer protection problems (the) FTC has ever faced.� Predominant forces on opposite ends of the issue are the Direct Marketing Association and the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email.

As this continues to play out at the federal level, there are steps you can take now to cut down on � if not virtually eradicate � the daily spam in your inbox:

Be aware of what you�re �opting-in� for
When you download �free� software and utilities (Instant Messengers, video and sound players, etc) be aware of the fine print: �I would like to hear about specials from <insert company here> and its partners.� This line is typically alongside a check-marked box. If it�s a company you want to hear from, then there is no problem. However, if it�s a company that doesn�t flat out guarantee that they will not make your name and e-mail address available to others, you should reconsider. Your e-mail address could be sold to the highest bidder if you don�t indicate otherwise. In other words, uncheck the box. This process is called �opting in� and �opting out,� giving or denying permission to a company to add your e-mail to their distribution list.

Know when to �opt out�
When you receive an unsolicited e-mail, it should have instructions (usually at the bottom in fine print) on how to unsubscribe via e-mail or by using a link to a Web page. Caution: Spammers can be devious, building their lists of e-mail addresses by pulling them off of Web sites, chat rooms or even by outright guessing. Sometimes, devious spammers who might have guessed your address may be using a fake, opt-out mechanism as a way to confirm to them that they guessed right. When you hit the �unsubscribe� button, keep track and make sure that you don�t receive future mailings from that domain name. Keep in mind that some mailing services can take a few days to remove you from a list, however in most cases, removal should be virtually instantaneous. If spam doesn�t stop, it�s time to make a formal complaint.

Find out �whois� sending it
Before making a formal complaint, you need to find out who is spamming you. The best place to start? The �whois� database. Whois is an online public database that lists the domain registrar, hosting server names, the registrant�s contact information and other details for every registered domain. You can easily conduct a whois search by starting with a third party like www.geektools.com or www.domainwhitepages.com. Or, you can logon to the Web site of a leading domain registrar, which will provide a link to a whois server. Information obtained from whois can be used to help direct your spam complaints to the appropriate place.

Report spam to the appropriate place
Every e-mail ever sent goes through a number of third parties to get to you. Responsible companies involved in this process will have policies against spam and e-mail abuse. When you�ve researched the domain in question, here are the types of companies to which you can report spam:

  • Domain registrars enable the domain name to point to the hosting provider (the server or servers that house the Web site). Although a registrar alone cannot stop an e-mail itself, if the link to the site is severed, the site being advertised is not going to work. This is one way to punish spammers.

  • Hosting providers have the servers that house the Web sites being advertised. Often times, the hosting provider will also handle some or all of the e-mail services. Hence, the hosting provider can be an excellent place to report spam. A hosting provider can affect the e-mail, as well as the Web site in question. Note: Some companies run and maintain their own Web server without outsourcing to a hosting provider. That would lead you to the next step�

  • Internet Service Providers (ISP�s) control the networks and bandwidth that transports e-mail, so they can effectively stop spam mailings in a much more direct fashion. ISP�s deal primarily with the Internet protocol (IP) address, a numeric identifier linked to the company�s servers or Web sites. There are far fewer ISP�s than hosting providers. Many of these are large networks, so be patient, as they may take a little longer to respond, but are an effective method of stopping spam from a certain source.

Download a good spam filter � or better yet, an intelligent one
The best way to clean up your inbox is to download an intelligent spam filter that recognizes and separates the good from the bad. To date, the best on the market is the �Bayesian� spam filter, which uses artificial intelligence to detect spam according to your personal e-mail preferences. This self-learning filter uses a probability based mathematical theory developed by Thomas Bayes, an 18th Century British clergyman. Bayes� theory is based on the number of times an event has or has not occurred, and the likelihood it will occur in the future.

Out of the gate, the Bayesian filter starts with basic �scoring� capabilities to effectively catch spam. It analyzes words, patterns and senders (among other metrics), giving each e-mail message a score which is compared against a defined threshold. If the e-mail makes the grade, it is delivered to your inbox as intended. If the score is too high, the message will be marked as spam in your inbox, or sent automatically to a location of your choosing, e.g. bulk mail.

Users can easily adjust the score threshold to be more or less sensitive. For example, if you have an e-mail address that is used primarily for communicating with your customers, you might lower the threshold setting. An e-mail used solely for internal correspondence might be set higher. The beauty of a Bayesian filter is that over time, as it learns from and adapts to a user�s individual e-mail patterns, it becomes incredibly effective, continually adjusting to recognize new types of spam.

Not so long ago, small business owners paid for receiving unsolicited advertising via their fax machines through wasted paper and toner. Today, you�re paying for spam in ways never imagined. Unlike the old days of blast-faxing, there are tools and resources at your disposal to stop spam before it strikes. If you have questions about spam and how best to stop it, contact your favorite domain registrar, ISP or e-mail service provider.

Bob Parsons is president and founder of GoDaddy.com, the world�s No. 1 registrar in net new domains and provider of domain-related products and services, including Spam Xploder�, intelligent, Bayesian filter technology. For more information, visit http://www.godaddy.com/.

Want to learn more?
An increasing number of grassroots groups and anti-spam advocates have joined the front lines to combat the infinite number of unwanted messages being sent to Internet subscribers. The following resources can help you learn more and stay apprised of the latest in the war against spam:

� Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email http://www.cauce.org/
� Direct Marketing Association http://www.the-dma.org/
� Federal Trade Commission http://www.ftc.gov/
� Internet Research Task Force http://www.irtf.org/
� Network Abuse Clearinghouse http://www.abuse.net/
� Spam Laws http://www.spamlaws.com/


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