To Avoid Junk E-mail On the Internet, Keep a Low Profile

Mark Bruce was shocked when his daughter, in addition to receiving messages from friends and family, started getting online offers for get-rich-quick schemes and pornographic material. It got so bad the worried father had to screen all her e-mail before she could read it.

Unfortunately, such cases are becoming all too common on the Internet.

The gateway to global information is also the backdoor for a slew of shady characters to peddle objectionable material. The funny thing about "spam," however, is that not everybody gets it. (That's what Internet people call this electronic junk mail, after the meat product made by Hormel.)

Eventually, Congress or some smart technologist will put a stop to the practice - at least the sending of inappropriate information to children. In the meantime, here's how not to get spam-boozled:

1. Be cyber-stealthy. The best way to avoid unsolicited messages is to keep spammers from getting your e-mail address in the first place. This means staying out of the online limelight.

For example, you're itching to join that online discussion about nuclear politics in Asia. But spammers routinely troll such public discussion areas. They even try to steal electronic mailing lists - groups of users who carry on an ongoing online discussion through e-mail.

So, stay out of online discussions. If you still want to join a mailing list, make sure its membership list is secure. Also, watch out for Web sites that ask you to register using your e-mail address. Before signing up, look for and read the site's privacy policy, advises Bryan Pfaffenberger, a University of Virginia professor and author of "Protect Your Privacy on the Internet: Privacy Defense Tools and Techniques You Can Use Right Now."

2. Don't fight back. Once you've gotten the spam, don't respond, even if the message invites you to remove your name from the mailing list. Often, spammers send out deliberately provocative messages hoping they'll get an angry reply, Prof. Pfaffenberger says. That way they know they have the correct e-mail address to send you more spam.

3. Make complaints count. Internet experts disagree whether you should complain to the Internet company that's providing service to the spammers. Some call it a waste of time. Others suggest it makes sense if you can figure out who it is. (spammers routinely forge their return addresses, so it's not easy to tell.) However, you should always complain to the authorities if you suspect the spammer is promoting illegal activity, such as child pornography or a pyramid scheme. The Electronic Software Publishing Corporation maintains a long list of links where you can direct complaints


4. Filters. Most browsers are beginning to incorporate e-mail filters that can direct messages to various folders or block them completely. Mr. Bruce solved his daughter's problem that way, using the parental controls on America Online so she couldn't read messages from strangers.

Pfaffenberger uses a filter that directs all his mail with exclamation points in the subject line to a junk folder. Spammers are so addicted to exclamation points that that one filter takes care of most of the problem, he says. Filters may be your best defense until someone puts an end to spam.

* Send comments to or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at

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