Spam is difficult to get rid of once you're on the spammers lists. However, it is relatively easy to avoid in the first place. Below I have explained some simple strategies that, if followed correctly, will render you all but immune to the ravages of spam.
5/23/2014-Removed a dead link and added link to Best Free Antivirus Software article.
6/9/2014-Replaced http links with https links wherever possible.
First, I think it's important to recognize the tactics spammers use to harvest your email address. If you know how they're going to attack, then you should be able to avoid falling prey. One thing to remember is that spammers have programs that constantly search forums, and other publically available sites, for email addresses that people have posted. Thus it's a good idea to never post your email address anywhere it can be viewed by the general public.
Also, if you decide to set a vacation autoresponder, or an autoresponder of any kind, make sure that you set it to only respond to people who are already in your contacts list. Most major email services provide this option. Also, if your email provider does not provide this option I would strongly advise that you do not autorespond to emails. If you reply to a spam then the spammers know that your email address is active and they will send you even more spam.
Also, it's a good idea to refrain from signing up for any offers that require an email address, unless you trust the website. If you're not confident then you should investigate the site using the methods discussed in How to Tell If A Website Is Dangerous. Also, to automatically provide some sort of protection against these sorts of sites, please read my article about How to Harden Your Browser Against Malware and Privacy Concerns. There are some very useful extensions mentioned in that article.
There are also websites which will intentionally try to impersonate a safe site in order to trick you into giving them information. This information can include passwords, your email address, credit card information, or many other types of sensitive information. These are known as phishing sites.
Sometimes you will find yourself in a position where you have to break some of these rules. For those times it's a good idea to have two separate email addresses. Use one only for communicating with friends and people you trust. The other should be reserved for interacting with sites you don't have complete confidence in. The benefit of this is that only your secondary email should get any spam. If the spam becomes unreasonable you can just delete the account and start another.
Of course instead of maintaining a second email address another option is to use disposable email addresses. For ideas for some helpful services which allow you to create disposable email addresses please see the article on this page.
The sad truth is that even if you open a fresh email address, and follow all the advice provided above, you may still receive some spam periodically. One of the things spammers do is send spam out to a very large number of email addresses which they think may exist. Thus, if this is where the spam in your inbox came from, the spammers may not even know your email address is even active. Below I have explained what steps to follow to both make sure the spam problem does not get worse and to help solve the problem once and for all. Note that these steps are also helpful if you are receiving a large quantity of spam.
Although this should be obvious I will quickly mention it. Please do your part to stop spam by refraining from purchasing anything from a site that you were directed to via spam. For one thing, you have no reason to trust the company with your credit card information, or really with any information at all. Also, giving your money to companies that advertise in this way only continues to make it profitable for people to send spam. You will be hurting not just yourself, but everyone else as well. Please don't fund spam.
One of the most potent defenses against spam is your own common sense. Never respond to an email unless you know, and trust, the sender. This includes unsubscribing from emails. If you don't remember doing business with the company then I'd advise against trying to unsubscribe from the email. If you try to unsubscribe from something that turns out to be spam, they will know your email is active. In the same line of reasoning you should never click on any links, or pictures, in spam. Many of these will have code in them that alerts the spammers that the email has been opened. Even clicking on the website URL could have this effect.
Following this same line of reasoning you also want to make sure that your webmail client is not configured to load external images automatically. Luckily, most webmail clients do have this disabled by default. Also make sure that you do not click to load external images yourself. Loading these images may have exactly the same effect as actually clicking on a link, or a picture. It may alert the spammers that the email has arrived and has been opened. Then they will know that your email address is active and will add you to their lists of people to spam. After this happens the amount of spam you receive will likely increase drastically.
To make sure that your email account is properly configured please go to this page, fill in your email address, and have it send you a test email. Trust me, the site is safe. After it says the email was sent you should open your email account however you normally would. Then open the test email that was sent. However, don't select the option to show images, send return receipt, or any prompts you may receive. Just click on the link in the email that says to view the results page. If everything is configured correctly for your email all of the results boxes should still be grey. If some are red then your email account is not yet configured properly. Note that this test should take less than 20 seconds to complete after you open the email. However, it will continue updating as if it is still running tests. It is not and you can safely close the site after ensuring that everything is configured correctly.
It's also possible that the spam could contain malware. To protect yourself from this please read my article about How to Stay Safe While Online. This article will help you to protect your computer from all types of malware.
In general, the best course of action it to report the spam and delete it without opening it. I have explained how to report spam, so that it will have the greatest effect, in my article about How to Report Spam. However, if you aren't absolutely certain that an email is spam you may need to open it to make sure. If that is the case then make sure all of the above advice has been followed before you open any suspect emails.
In addition to helping others avoid spam, which is an admirable goal by itself, educating those you are close to will also help you. Essentially, these people also have access to your email address and thus, regardless of how careful you are about providing it to sites, they can inadvertently give your email address to spammers accidently. One very important thing that those with access to your email address need to know is that if you are going to forward a particular email to a lot of people you should forward it by using BCC. This way everyone else's email addresses are masked. If you forward it to everyone normally, and that email eventually makes it into the hands of spammers, then you have essentially just signed up everyone for spam. Thus educating people about the importance of BCC is very important.
Yet another way others could accidently expose your email address to spam is as innocently as a loving relative who really wants to surprise you by signing you up for that 'free' laptop that a site is giving away. This sort of action, as I hope most of you are already aware, will likely lead to that email address getting spam. Thus for everyone's sake it's really necessary that in addition to making sure you know how to avoid spam, you also help others to know how to stay safe as well.
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