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How to get rid of spam emails: A how-to guide

If spam messages were popular, you probably wouldn’t need a guide to get rid of them. But few people appreciate the wave of email messages containing exaggerated promises, useless information, and sometimes explicit content that can flood your email account.

Spam — the broad term for unsolicited, bulk-sent email messages — accounted for more than half of worldwide email volume in September 2019. While some of these emails are just annoying marketing messages, others contain dangerous malware, which could lead to cybercriminals gaining access to your computer or other devices.

But there are ways to help stem the tide of unwanted emails. Here's a guide for how to stop spam emails.

What’s the difference between spam emails and legitimate marketing?

Spam and marketing messages, sometimes called "junk mail," both represent emails that may clutter your inbox. But there’s one difference: permission.

Generally, legitimate marketing emails are sent by businesses once you opt in. Through these emails, you may subscribe to a newsletter, sign up for services, read members-only content, enter contests, or share the message via email or social media. Companies that send out emails have to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, which was signed into law in 2003. When you no longer want to receive the marketing emails, you can click an unsubscribe link in the message.

Spam emails are sent without permission and seldom contain an unsubscribe link, unless it's a link that may be embedded with malware. Spam messages usually come from an illegitimate email address, contain explicit or illegal content, use scare tactics, contain typos and wrong information, and are sent in bulk from an anonymous sender.

While not all spam emails are a scam, many of them are sent with malicious intent.

Common spam email security threats

Spam emails are annoying enough, but some of them can put your digital safety at risk. Some spam messages contain viruses, malware, and other cyberthreats. Here are a few to watch for.

Trojan horses

Even if you think you know how to verify whether an email is legitimate, a trojan horse uses deception to get past those defense mechanisms. Trojan horses come disguised as a legitimate program. For instance, they could be hidden inside free software downloads or sent as email attachments from someone you know.

When you open the email, the trojan installs malicious code — typically spyware or viruses — designed to create problems on your PC. For example, the trojan may allow an attacker to control your computer, steal your data, lock you out of your computer, or steal your account information or email addresses. Installing anti-malware software may help you catch these trojans.

Zombies

This type of malware also typically comes in an email attachment, but it turns your computer into a server for the purpose of sending spam to other PCs. You may not know that your computer has been taken over, but it may slow down considerably or the battery may drain quickly. Meanwhile, your computer is sending out waves of spam or attack web pages.

One way to avoid zombies: Never open attachments or click links in emails from your spam folder.

Phishers and vishers

Phishers send emails that often try to mimic messages from legitimate financial companies or other businesses you may actually use. The spam phishing email will ask you to go to a fraudulent or spoofed website to re-enter your credit card number or verify your password. It’s a scheme to capture that personal information.

Vishers will try to have you call them on the phone to provide your personal information. Keep in mind that reputable businesses would not make such requests by email.

Plain old scams

Sometimes, it's the old-school scams that might seem legitimate. These play on your desires or good nature: You've won a ton of money or someone urgently needs your help. In reality, you haven’t won a lottery in Turkey. And you haven’t been selected by the exiled wife of a foreign leader to receive $10 million in exchange for the use of your bank account number.

Don't be disappointed. If an offer sounds too good or too strange to be true, it probably is.

Spam emails may contain inappropriate content

There are a lot of spam offers of sexual aids or solicitations that you might recognize as bogus. At the same time, you wouldn’t want your kids to see those emails. Some of them contain pornographic text or images in the email body, while others may include links to pornographic or adult dating sites.

You can find tips below for how to help stop spam emails. But in the meantime, if inappropriate emails keep piling up in your spam email folder and you don't want your kids to see those messages, tell them the spam folder is off limits.

You can also adjust your email filters to block certain words and topics. Consider blocking emails that contain vulgar words or adult topics.

Spam emails can be risky for elderly people and kids

It’s a good idea to explain spam email to kids. They might be so comfortable with PCs that they click on everything, including things they shouldn't click on. Here are some topics that might be worth covering.

  • Make sure kids don't open email from people they don't know.
  • Warn them not to open attachments because they may release spyware, viruses, or inappropriate content.
  • Ask them to show you any email that they aren't sure of before they open it.

If you think your children will be harmed by content that might appear in spam, you should consider if they are old enough or mature enough for their own email accounts.

For younger children, make sure to set the spam folder settings in their email and review their incoming email subject lines when they log in.

Elderly people might also be vulnerable to spam email messages. It’s a good idea to explain to them the dangers of some spam messages.

Keep your email address safe to avoid spam emails

One way to keep your email address off of spam lists is to limit its exposure. When you post your email address in an online forum or provide it to others in a message, try to hide it so automated tools used by spammers won’t pick it up.

For instance, instead of using zeke@makebelieve.com, type "zeke at Make Believe dot com" or "Zeke at Make Believe d0t c0m."

Create an email address you use just for online shopping and another email address for correspondence. With free email, it's easy to create multiple accounts so you can limit the spam that appears in your primary account.

How to get rid of spam emails

Though you can take steps to control the volume of marketing emails you receive, spam messages can be harder to stop. Here are some tips that could help.

Train your email filter

Most email services, such as Gmail, have algorithms that filter out spam and junk mail and tuck them away in their own folder. But if you find spam in your regular inbox, don't just delete the message — mark it as spam. For instance, in Gmail you would click the icon that contains three vertical dots, and then click "Report spam." This will help teach your email filter to identify spam in the future.

Never engage with spam emails

If it looks like a spam message, it probably is — so delete them promptly. Such messages may contain software that tells the sender you've opened the email, confirming you have an active account. Don't open the message, click the links, download a file, or hit "reply."

If the message appears to come from someone you know, contact them immediately and let them know their account may have been compromised. Many malware programs steal legitimate email addresses and use them to send spam messages.

Keep your email address private

Giving out your email address in more places can increase the amount of spam email you receive. If it’s not absolutely essential to share, keep it private.

How? Don't provide your email address to retail businesses (online or in-person), post it to your online comments, or provide it on social media profiles. It might help to create an email address solely for these purposes, so you can keep your main email address private.

Use a third-party anti-spam filter

Although your email service provider may have its own filter, you might want to consider pairing it with a third-party filter to help increase your cyber security. Effective spam filters can do these things:

  • Identify false emails designed to look legitimate.
  • Block adult content.
  • Use public spam lists to block messages from known spammers.
  • Block phishing schemes and harmful attachments.

You'll need to find an anti-spam filter that works with your email provider and addresses your own needs.

Change your email address

If the spam keeps on rolling in, it could mean your email address was exposed in a data breach. It can be hard to prevent spam when cybercriminals have your information. One option is to create a new email address.

If you decide to create a new email address, you'll need to update your contact information on all accounts tied to your original email address. Keep both accounts open for a few months so you can redirect any remaining messages to the new account.

The Spam List

Keep your email address off of spam lists by keeping it low profile. When you post your email address in an online forum or provide it to others in a message, try to hide it so automated tools used by spammers will be tricked. For example, instead of using marian@norton.com, type "marian at Norton dot com" or "marian at n0rt0n d0t c0m." Create an email address you use just for online shopping and another email address for correspondence. With free Web email it's easy to create multiple accounts so you can limit the spam that appears in your primary account.

What to Do

So far, there is no such thing as a "do not email" list. Until there is, you'll have to take care of spam yourself. Fortunately there are good tools to help you do that. Most email programs include spam filters that detect and isolate spam. Many Internet service providers filter out spam so it never reaches your PC. But to get thorough protection against spam, you'll need to install security software such as Norton Internet Security to screen, detect, and block spam, and to eliminate viruses and spyware that may already reside on your PC.

Should spam slip through these filters, take the simplest approach to suspicious emails and just hit delete.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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