Tech Tips: Spam and Hoaxes

by Doug Hayman, Adaptive Technology Specialist
Those of us that use e-mail on a regular basis have been exposed to both spam (unsolicited junk e-mail) and hoaxes (blatantly false e-mail intended to alarm others, spread urban myths, or to just plain spread like wildfire no matter the content). For the occasional user of e-mail, these may seem a minor inconvenience. To the rest of us, these can be very disruptive.

[Picture of Doug Hayman] We can take a pro-active stance to minimize the impact of spam and hoaxes on the important things we'd like to accomplish with e-mail. To reach this goal, we must limit the number of people who have access to our e-mail address. Additionally, we need to not become part of the problem by being the source of spam and hoaxes e-mailed on to others.

Spam
Whereas junk mail, in the traditional sense of the word, requires tangible items to mail and postage expenses, junk e-mail does not. It costs no more to send one e-mail advertisement than it does to send ten thousand. Spam e-mail can become much more of a problem for the recipient as it doesn't require much in the way of financial investment from the sender. The sender, or spammer, of this unsolicited junk e-mail thrives on maintaining a list of known active e-mail addresses. Tools created to "harvest" e-mail addresses from the Internet make it easy to create a list of valid addresses. Once he/she creates a list of addresses, the spammer just floods the 'net with junk. Those that reply with complaints to the junk mail sender just validate to him/her that the address is current and active. Spammers often sell valid e-mail addresses to each other.

The best means of dealing with spam is prevention - minimize the avenues for others to acquire your e-mail address. One way to do this and still participate on the Internet, is to have multiple accounts. For those postings you do that will be widely available, use an account other than your primary, important account. This strategy can be carried out by obtaining a free e-mail account through such services as Hotmail™ or Yahoo™.

In order to prevent your cyber-correspondents from falling prey to spammers, it is wise to create mailing distribution lists that don't reveal all the recipients in the e-mail. That way, if the mail gets forwarded to some undesirable individual, the damage is minimal and your friend's e-mail addresses remain hidden.

Once your e-mail address has fallen into the hands of the "enemy," stopping the junk mail can be more problematic. To learn more about spam, and how to deal with it check out the following Web sites:

Hoaxes
Coming in a close second to the irritation of spam are hoaxes. These e-mail messages don't attempt to sell as much as they attempt to be perpetuated throughout the Internet like breeding rabbits. Once you have received several of these messages, the formula becomes familiar and you will recognize them as hoax material. New e-mail users are often the most vulnerable to believing and passing them on to others with good intention.

Hoax messages take on several predictable formats. One is the "get rich by doing little or nothing" scenario. A second strain purports to bring good will to those who forward the message and, likewise, great misfortune to those who fail to do so. A variation on this is the type of message that promises a reward in the form of a cash or a trip for forwarding the message "to everyone you know." Another type preys on the fears of the computer user with claims that a particular event will cause their computer to be destroyed by a virus or worm program. The most notable of these was the "good times" virus. Unfortunately, receiving a virus via e-mail is a possibility and distinguishing between reality and myth takes a little investigation. Having a virus scanning program running on your system with the current virus signatures is an excellent measure. Unfortunately, these tools work by using a portion of recognizable virus code to filter the good from the bad. If the virus is new and not yet known to be in "the wild" it might not get detected by the virus scanning software. The best safeguard is not running programs or opening attachments from unknown/untrusted sources.

There are Web sites to further illustrate the nature of hoaxes. They list specific known hoaxes as well as typical formulas/formats of hoaxes to help Internet users develop skills necessary to discern truth from fiction. http://www.snopes.com is a good place to search for information on a suspected hoax.

Conclusion
Spam and hoaxes needlessly clog the roadways of the Internet, adding to congestion and interrupting the desired processes of the e-mail user. An informed Internet user will minimize his/her exposure to receiving such mail and will respect the needs of others by refusing to pass such junk along to others.