Almost everyone gets some unwanted e-mail. It's estimated that about 40 percent of all e-mail is now spam and it's getting worse, not better.
I get an average of nearly 200 pieces of junk mail a day. I'm not talking about the type of bulk advertising that comes via snail mail. Most of the spam I get is far worse, promoting porn sites, Viagra, organ enlargement and a variety of get-rich-quick schemes and product offers that are simply too good to be true.
Spammers don't discriminate which means that their junk finds its way into everyone's mailboxes, including children. I respect the free speech rights of those who post legal pornography (not illegal child porn), but I don't think they should have the right to pander porn to children whose only offense is to open their e-mail.
The cost of spam is enormous - by some estimates as much as $10 billion a year in lost productivity as well as the cost of all the equipment, software and resources needed to process it or get rid of it.
Personally, I think spam is going to be with us for a long time, but I do think there are things that can be done about it on both a personal and legislative level.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in all 50 states are busy trying to find a solution. Some proposed federal laws, like the Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act and the Wilson-Green Anti-Spam Act would require companies and individuals who send unsolicited mail to honor a request to stop sending the mail and would prohibit using false return addresses. This type of law is known as ''opt out.'' The Wilson-Green bill would also grant consumers the right to sue spammers.
The other type of legislation, known as ''opt in,'' would ban all forms of unsolicited e-mail, allowing companies to send mail only to consumers to request it. Consumer Union and the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (cauce.org) are opposed to the opt-out strategy, arguing that even legitimate companies shouldn't have the right to contact you via e-mail without your permission.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is one of the industry groups seeking an anti-spam law that protects the rights of legitimate companies to send out mail as long as they agree to respect consumer requests to be taken off the list.
You can find a summary of existing and pending legislation by state and country (including the United States at www.spamlaws.com)
With or without legislation, consumers will still have to take some action to protect themselves. Let's face it, not all spammers operate within the Unites States and even some of those will find ways to flaunt the law.
There are tools available right now that go a long way toward helping you reduce spam. I've been using Matador from MailFrontier (www.mailfrontier.com) and SpamNet from Cloudmark (www.cloudmark.com) to filter my mail.
MailFrontier, which works in both Outlook and Outlook Express, is about 90 percent effective in blocking unwanted mail. Mail that it suspects as spam is put into a special folder that you can look at just in case of a false positive.
The program has filtered thousands of pieces of spam since I installed it a month ago, and has only stopped a few messages that I considered to be legitimate. When that happens, you highlight the message and click the "unjunk" button and the message is moved into your in box and the sender is added to a "white list" so that the mail will no longer be blocked.
Cloudmark's SpamNet, which currently only works with Outlook, uses a similar filtering technology but you have to type in the actual e-mail addresses of people or companies you want to add to your "white list."
SpamNet software is free but costs $3.99 a month to use, while Matador software costs $29.95. Although it doesn't disclose this on the web site, I was told that the company plans to charge users a small annual fee after the first year.
One problem with both these programs is that the mail still arrives. It's isolated so you don't have to look at it, but you have to waste time downloading it, which can be a lot of time if you're using a standard modem.
Another way to block spam is to use a system called "Challenge/Response." Leading challenge/response vendors include MailBlocks.com ($9.95 a year) and Earthlink (spam filtering free to users).
Anyone who tries to send a message to someone using a challenge/response system will get a message asking them to respond to a simple challenge such as typing in a number. The reason for this is that the vast majority of spam is based on e-mail addresses that are automatically harvested. Spammers don't send out messages individually, but use software that isn't capable of responding to these challenges.
Challenge/response systems block virtually 100 percent of spam, but they do put a small burden on the people who write to you. Most will automatically add-in people in your address book, and companies developing these types of systems are working on newer technologies to reduce the inconvenience level.
In addition to filters, there are some things we can all do to help reduce spam. First, never buy anything advertised via spam, even if it is a good offer. You're just encouraging them. Second, be careful how you reveal your e-mail address. Don't post it on the web or in public areas such as message boards or chat rooms and only reveal it to web sites you trust. If you must post or reveal your address, use a "disposable" one such as a Hotmail or Yahoo Mail account.
Don't respond to any untrusted spammers, even if they offer you a way to remove yourself from their list. Those are often tricks, because once you respond, they know that yours is a valid address. That encourages them to send you more spam and to sell your valid address to other spammers.
Legitimate mailers - such as airlines and major retailers, will honor your request to be taken off the list, but make sure that you're really dealing with a legitimate company, not a spammer posing as one.
Another option is to stop using e-mail altogether. Of course, I don't advocate that but if something isn't done about spam, I'm afraid that more and more people might just take that approach.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid