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I'm New to E-mail - Help!


This won't be of much interest to anyone with more than a modicum of e-mail savvy - but everyone has to start somewhere, and if you've never had much dealings with the wonderful world of Web, then using e-mail can be a minefield of scams, counter-scams, bluffs and dodges - and worse.

First thing to remember is that there are a lot of nice people out there on the Web - it's not the intrinsically evil sess pit that some would have you believe - but there are dangers, and there are many, many people wishing to do the following things to you (for various reasons):

So, rule number 1. When you get an e-mail from someone you don't know - be suspicious. It's the right way to react. Even if you get an e-mail from someone you do know, you should still be cautious. No, it's not being mis-trustful, it's being sensible.

But how do they get my e-mail address if I never gave it to them? Truthfully, it hardly matters once they have it, but the chances are:

So, as you can see, it really doesn't matter if you didn't give anyone at all your e-mail address - unfortunately, sooner or later you'll be getting spam (ie. junk e-mail). But, a good idea is to have at least two addresses - one that you want to give friends or colleagues, and maybe another that you want to use for signing up for various things on the Web. Rest assured you'll quickly get more junk mail in the second address. (unless you have some rotten friends).

Another good point to note; many "spam" e-mails will have an address where you can supposedly be taken off their mailing list, and hence solve some of your problems. But you should be wary - some of these are basically just another way for the "spammers" to collect legitimate e-mail addresses. For example, (and for our examples we'll give our spam sender a non-de-plume of "Spam Kiddie"):

But, of course, some of these "remove from mailing list" links are legitimate - quite possibly the bigger proportion are - just be aware of the risk - it is real, I'm not making this stuff up!

Porno-mail...Ok, it may be your thing or it may be not - but, believe it or not, the vast majority of normal, right-minded people don't like to get pornographic pictures and offers in their Inbox every day. Seriously, some of this stuff is very offensive - not things you'd want your children to see, or even your parents come to that. Regardless, you'll get porno' spam in your Inbox. Unfortunately you'll have to get used to it (for the forseeable future at least). Yes. there are lots of scum out there on the Web - suffice to say that these are mostly all the same people you would ignore in the street.

The easiest thing to do with porno-mail is just delete it. Once you get a bit more e-mail savvy then you can set up filters in your e-mail program to ignore, or maybe even block at least a proportion of porno-mail. In my humble opinion, the worst thing in the world to do is respond to it. The scum that run porn sites make money from practically every aspect of their sites, from simply showing a pop-up window, to getting you to click on a link, or even just collecting e-mail addresses. Don't encourage them (like they need it, right!).

HTML / Plain Text / Active-X / JavaScript: e-mail can be sent (and received) in one of two formats - HTML or Plain Text. HTML e-mail can include clever things that make the e-mail resemble a Web-page - ie. images and other flashy things. It also enables the furtive spammer to include lesser wanted things, such as JavaScript (which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but there's unlikely ever a real necessity for it to be included in an e-mail); also, it could include Active-X controls (again, not intrinsically bad, but could theoretically be used to gain control of your computer) - some e-mails may use these technologies well and without intending to cause harm, but these are the same technologies that spammers like to use to exploit fundamental security weaknesses in your system. Anyway, my preference is to amend my e-mail settings in Outlook Express (or whatever your e-mail program) to only "read e-mail messages in plain text" - there should be such an option under one of the menus if you look for it. (it's under Tools > Options > - then select the "Read" tab, in Outlook Express). This isn't a solution to stopping spam, but it does help to increase your computer's security in the face of such onslaughts.

Begging letters / Nigerian Scams: Gee, these people just don't give up. "I am a decendent of Colonel so and so....", "I have been left a fortune in a Nigerian bank account....", "My Friend, This message may come as a surprise to you....", "...need your urgent assistance..."...the list goes on and on and on...This is a sad thing to say, but you can be pretty much assured that if you delete every e-mail that has the words "Nigeria" together with "please" in it (usually together with the mention of you making a lot of money) then you'll be missing nothing. Don't bother responding - not even to say "get lost"...it's tempting - but don't do it! If it really concerns you that much then collect a bunch of them and send them to the police...People do actually investigate these scams. Can't remember the exact figure, but these scams account for the most incredible percentage of Nigerian gross domestic product (GDP) - seriously - there are that many gullible people that not only respond to these e-mails, but actually end up sending them money! That's the way it works!

Please send us your password....Yeah, right! But guess what - people do exactly that! Believe me, any company that you have any type of account with, where there is a username and password on the account, then at a minimum (even if they don't actually know your password) they'll be able to over-ride it with a super-user password. (ie. they shouldn't need to ask you for it). This is a good lesson in all aspects of the Internet, and computer security in general - DON'T send passwords via e-mail. If you get an e-mail you're not expecting from someone asking you for a password, then ignore it. If you get an e-mail from someone you know, asking for a password - be very wary! At all opportunities, if you really must part with your password, then only ever give it to some trusted source whom you've dealt with before, and even then don't write it in an e-mail - call them if necessary, but if they really need it then you could reasonably assume that they will call you. Passwords should be kept safe at all times! If you must write them down, don't store them on your computer, or even near your computer - put them in your wallet or somewhere similarly safe.

Perfect Body / Inkjet Cartridges / 50% off everything in the world..../: Yawn! Though even to an e-mail skeptic, they sure make some of these advertisements look pretty enticing...But if the product or deal is really that good, then you'll quickly find it on one of the major shopping sites or similar. Ignore the e-mail. Delete it. Move on in life...

True Love / Man(or Woman) of your Dreams - in my opinion most often is found outside of an e-mail....Delete it.

Think about it: Really, if you get an e-mail addressed to "Dear Friend", "Dear Sir (or Madam)", "Dear Colleague"...etc, then be rest assured that the e-mail sender almost certainly doesn't know you. Most of your friends would use your name or nickname, and most businesses with whom you deal would know your title/name and use it. Don't be conned by these seemingly official messages - they're garbage. Bin them!

Ummm, but this sender really does seem to know me:...I don't seem to have made my point. Spammers will use any and every method to attract your attention. It costs them almost nothing, and often literally nothing, to send a couple of million e-mails. They will happily guess that someone who has an e-mail address of john1999@hotmail.com also has a first name of John. I remind you again - these people are scum. They couldn't care if they send you the same message a hundred times every day for a month, each with a different name on it.

Fake Addresses: Sure, go right ahead. If there's a form or something that you need to fill in on the Internet - and you don't need, or want, a response from whoever it is - then just give a fake address. But do the right thing, don't just give someone else's address, give a real fake address. Most Web-sites only check basic syntax of an e-mail address (ie. that it must have an "@" sign, and that it must have at least one "." subsequent to the @ sign etc), so make something up. Examples: bad-address@in.va.li.d.moc, or fake@zz.zz.zz. You get the idea. The best way is to use a fake domain type (ie. most addresses - in real life - end in ".com" or ".net" or similar. So, make your fake address end in ".zzz" or ".fake" or something....). But beware, if you give a fake address and then decide that you really did need a response from wherever you signed up, you'll not likely be met with open arms by the site operator when you try to wiggle your way back into their good books.

So, seriously, you can ignore at least 50% of your e-mail - most probably more. The bottom line is that if you really want to respond to someone offering some deal or other, then go right ahead - I wish you luck, it may work out well for both of you...but just be aware of the possible dangers. I should just mention the obvious - don't give credit card details in response to an e-mail, or indeed any personal information. It's your personal information - keep it personal!

But how do I stop getting spam in the first place? Very good question. At present (2003) you'll have a very hard job in stopping spam in its tracks 100%. However, there are becoming more ways to handle spam, though none are perfect - despite their claims. In my opinion, the cheapest (free) way to handle spam in the most time efficient way, is to get a Hotmail account (http://www.hotmail.com) and set your filters up to the highest possible level. But play with it for a week or two and decide what filtering level suits you best. It's not perfect, but it's ok - and it is free.

If you have Outlook Express, then you probably already have what's called a POP3 account (maybe with your local Internet Service Provider (ISP)). In Outlook you can also set up filters etc to prevent certain e-mail from filling up your Inbox, but this is a bit more labor intensive, and will take some playing around with to perfect. But, you can manage to catch a good proportion of spam with Outlook if set up correctly. (Go to the menu item "Tools" and then select "Message Rules").




© 2003, DGB - e-mail David for more information (no promises on a speedy response, but I'll do my best if time permits)