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Every workday morning, I turn on the lights in my office, boot up my computer, and hit the delete key 50 or 60 times. That’s about how much “spam,” or junk e-mail messages I receive. It’s annoying, to say the least. And it’s costing the economy, amounting to almost 40 percent of e-mail traffic every day. It’s not doing much for our productivity. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be forced to read pitches for great new home businesses, “generic” Viagra and, well, you know. On the other hand, I am almost totally unbothered by e-mail spam at home. I see only messages I wish to see, from close friends, relatives and retailers from whom I buy on a regular basis (think Amazon and Netflix). I suppose I could, with a little effort, see what junk has come my way. It’s sitting in a folder in my e-mail program, and occasionally I rouse myself to click on the folder and, after a quick scan, hit the “delete” key. Other than making it a federal crime — proposals to do just that surface periodically — there are ways we, as users, can fight back. There’s both preventive and after-the-fact therapy. But be warned: The remedies require some thought, preparation and willingness to balance your free and unfettered use of the Internet versus your privacy and, perhaps, sanity. (These suggestions, of course, work from the assumption that you don’t have a full-time IT staff screening a mail server; if you do, simply forward them a sample of the junk you get and they’ll do their best to keep it off the e-mail system.) PRACTICE SAFE SURFING There are a number of ways we advertise ourselves on the Web, and much of it by now has become habit. Spammers take advantage of our serendipitous voyages around the Web by sending search robots out to gather e-mail addresses. Once you’re on a list, the spams will keep jamming your inbox. The most obvious way we put ourselves out there is by participating in online forums. Yes, they may help you find a legal form or help you work out a software glitch, but by doing so you’re putting your name out there. If the forum allows it, hide or don’t provide your e-mail address. If you must supply an address, either use your Internet service provider’s settings to come up with a public e-mail address, or alter yours. So, instead of [email protected], specify that your name is [email protected] Spammers will come up on a nonexisting address that way. Another way sellers obtain your address is via the ubiquitous online forms we’ve gotten used to filling out. Before you buy online, check out the retailer’s privacy statement. If they don’t have one, be wary. And, if it’s possible, steer clear of sellers that don’t promise that they won’t sell your address to others. Get in touch with your cookies, too. Most sites give you one these days — either for convenience, like enabling Amazon’s one-click purchases, or for less beneficial reasons, like tracking who you are. Use your public ID for your browser, so you can ignore any junk mail that later, and inevitably, comes your way. FILTER, FILTER, FILTER As e-mail programs have gotten more sophisticated, so have the tools you use to block spam. Unfortunately, they don’t always work the way you’d like them to. And spammers have gotten really ingenious in exploiting the holes. First, you can try to devise rules. In Outlook (the corporate Microsoft Corp. software that works with Exchange servers) and Outlook Express, you can find rules under the “Tools” menu. If you know, for example, that [email protected] is sending you regular spam, you specify a rule that bars mail from that address. But that’s just the problem. Spammers are nothing if not ingenious. They vary the sending address, and often it’s a phony. So you’ll likely have trouble coming up with an ironclad rule. And remember the bit about balance. Somehow, a potential rulemaker has to find the elusive sweet spot between underinclusiveness and getting rid of too much. I found myself trying to make a spam rule last summer and it inadvertently got rid of e-mails from my boss. Oops. Luckily, they just moved to a folder and were easily retrieved. Luckily, there are junk mail filters built into the software most of us use that are more automated than rules. The most popular e-mail programs for SOHO users, Eudora and Outlook Express/Entourage (for Mac Office users) have junk mail filters that are pretty good. If you simply apply the filter, OE will mark the mail as junk, by applying a different color. You can then apply a rule consigning junk mail to the trash. But enough about you. My home e-mail experience transcends mere rules because I’ve been using the latest version of Apple’s Mail program on my personal account. Mail comes with the latest iteration of Mac OS X, dubbed Jaguar, and it has a junk mail filter that’s amazingly intelligent — Apple uses the marketing-speak term “adaptive latent semantic analysis.” Whatever. I switched from Entourage out of curiosity, and have stuck with it since then. The first week you train Mail as it marks junk messages brown. If you see a mistake, you simply mark it “not junk” via a toolbar button. After a week or so, if the training’s gone well (and most users swear by it), you can switch to automatic mode. THE LAST RESORT: COMPLAIN No one says you just have to take all of this lying down, or at least sitting there trying to fend it off. You can also fight back. (Caveat: Don’t respond to any spam. That just confirms your address to the bad guys.) Complain, loudly. Write to your ISP, if it’s a big one like America Online or Earthlink, or talk to the techs, if it’s a local outfit. Insist they monitor traffic and delete offensive junk. Earthlink, in particular among the big ones, has staked out a fairly tough position on both spam and Internet privacy. ISPs in general are aware of the problem and, with varying success, try to block it at the source. MSN, for example, tries to apply filters to mass mailers, while Earthlink’s mail has a “Spaminator” feature. I activated it yesterday, but didn’t see that much of a difference. Naturally, there are commercial services who’d love to help us fight spam, like Spam Cop ( mail.spamcop.net) and RS ( remove-spam.com). They act as paid clearing houses, and will filter mail coming your way, and/or report abuses. SpamCop charges $30 a year for its services. But when it comes down to it, the best defense is just playing smart. Use your common sense; don’t disseminate your information publicly if you can avoid it; be discriminating about using filters, and complain when you come across egregious abusers. Anthony Paonita is executive editor of Corporate Counsel magazine and contributing editor of Law Technology News.

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