Well, that takes care of trying to avoid the spam in the first place--but what to do when you do get it?

  • Complain to the systems the spammers are using
    First, if you really care, complain. Every time. Every email. Either use one of the programs that help you do it, like Spam Hater, or learn to read the headers to see where the mail truly originated. You can use a free web-based utility at SpamCop as well, which will even tell you where to send the complaints. Sign up for abuse.net's free service, so you can simply send email to the originatingdomain@abuse.net, and they'll take care of figuring which address to send the complaint to at the originating domain. If you don't complain, the ISPs being used to send the email care far less about the fact that their servers are being used in this way. It may seem like a minor inconvenience, but every time a particular server or ISP is closed to spammers it makes it that little bit harder for them to do business.

    I complain to the system through which the email was sent, but also to any other systems the spammer is using. For instance, spammers often give a reply email address on a different system in the body of their email, knowing that the account through which they sent the email will probably be cancelled soon. Sometimes they give the URL of their web sites. I complain to the system for the reply email address and whoever is hosting their web site or is upstream from it, noting in those complaints that while I know their systems weren't used to send the spam, they are doing business with unscrupulous businesses and their reputations are therefore being tarnished by association. Most of the email systems do go ahead and cancel the accounts. Some of the web hosting providers do, some don't--but it's always worth the couple of seconds to try.

  • Report pyramid schemes to the FTC
    Forward any emails you receive promoting pyramid schemes to pyramid@ftc.gov as well as the other addresses. These scams are illegal.

  • Recycle your spam.
    Send it to the Spam Recycling Center, using the address spamrecycle@ChooseYourMail.com, and if you're in the US, put your state's abbreviation (GA for Georgia, AL for Alabama, etc.) in the subject line of the email. They report the spam to elected officials in an attempt to help get antispam legislation passed, and provide the spam to various filtering companies to help them improve their filters.

  • Do not ever use the "remove" instructions provided in the UCE or communicate directly with the spammer in any way.
    In most cases that just verifies that yours is a valid email address, which lets them sell it to other spammers for more money than addresses that may or may not be valid. Using it will not reduce the amount of UCE you receive. I believe that the same goes for the Internet Email Marketing Council, which claims you can sign up with them to be removed from all their members' lists. There are other, similar services, and I honestly have no reason to trust any of them.

  • Don't trust any of the opt-out lists.

  • Complain about inappropriate commercial usenet posts
    Complain about any commercial posts in discussion (non-discussion) newsgroups, as well. They may not matter as much to you personally, but the same companies usually spam newsgroups and email--and they can ruin a newsgroup, making it unreadable. Again, you'll need to read the headers to find out where the post actually originated in order to send your complaint to the proper people.

    In the same vein, I find it useless--and sometimes even foolish--to address a complaint, or even a polite request, to anyone who sends UCEs or posts advertisements in noncommercial newsgroups. At best, you've just verified your email address for their lists. At worst, you'll receive nastygrams, email bombs, or other harassment from them. The only way anyone using the net today can avoid knowing that such advertising is unwanted is through willful ignorance. It isn't your job to educate him.

  • Be polite
    No matter who you're complaining to, be polite. It isn't the postmaster's fault that one of his users is sending out spam (well, not usually, anyway).

  • Vote with your wallet
    Refuse to do business with anyone who uses spam for advertising. Contact the business that is being advertised rather than the spammer to let them know that you're boycotting them because of their advertising methods.

Spam Recycling Center

Last updated October 25, 2001

About the Author

Cynthia Armistead is a freelance technical writer, quality assurance analyst, and Internet security advocate with a broad spectrum of experience.

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