We spend a lot of time on email at work.
Some of it isn’t avoidable—it makes sense to care about (and spend time on) email from customers. And for conveying non-urgent information among colleagues, it’s tough to beat email. So you build systems to make it efficient—templates, internal notes, assigning emails to specific team members. It’s all in service of communicating quickly and authentically.
But what about all the time you spend digging through messages that don’t matter? Spam email messages. Bulk email. Unsolicited email. What should your email spam filter be catching? And what about weird generic emails that don’t even seem to want a response (and might be sent by bots)?
All these anti-spam questions come down to figuring out what you can set, unsubscribe from, and automate—and when it’s time to hit the “report spam” button.
What are bulk email, unsolicited email, and spam email?
For starters, there are three particular types of message we’re talking about—spam email, bulk email, and unsolicited email—and they’re not all the same.
Bulk email can be a gray area. Bulk email is simply email that is sent to multiple email users. Spam is a type of bulk email, but not all bulk email is automatically bad—most companies use it to communicate with their prospective or current customers. We’re talking about email newsletters and promotions here.
The difference between legitimate commercial email and illegitimate spam bulk email is whether or not the receiver opted into receiving the message—and for these types of messages to be above board, you must be able to opt out or stop receiving the emails upon request. Read more about opt-in laws (specifically the CAN-SPAM act) here.
Unsolicited email is simply email you did not specifically request. Like bulk email, that can be a gray area, but it’s a general term. A legitimate company emailing you out of the blue is an unsolicited message—but so is a “hey I’m in town let’s catch up” email from a college friend you haven’t seen in ten years. Unsolicited commercial or personal email can be just fine. If you asked to be on a mailing list, that’s not unsolicited email—but commercial emails you did not request can be at best a nuisance, and in some cases may also be spam.
Spam email is anonymous unsolicited bulk email. In general, people who send spam are most likely trying to rip you off and/or infect your device with malicious software (ransomware), in the hope of stealing your money or credit card details, personal information, or company data—or manipulate your systems to send email that spams others.
Sometimes, even if spam email messages have a name or address you recognize, that email has been spoofed, or faked, and may also be due to inbox, server, or email users that have been compromised and are now being used to send a vast amount of spam to folks like you. Spam is the bad stuff, and in countries such as the U.S., spam can be illegal.
The trouble with these types of email is that they can easily overlap, or one be can be confused for another, says Jay Thompson, marketing strategist and partner with And Update My Website, a web consulting firm based in Eugene, Oregon.
“Many companies that use email marketing are likely to add you to other email topic lists without your express opt-in,” he explains. “For instance, you might have signed up for email lists on technical updates to products you actually use or purchase from a vendor, and they send you anything they publish. So you’ll start seeing info about products by the same company that aren’t relevant to you. If the company doesn’t maintain separate email topic lists, you may need to consider unsubscribing.”
Preventing junk email starts with your email provider
Spam protection and avoiding junk email starts with your company’s structure, and the type of email solution you’re using. There’s a lot that can be done on the back end of those systems, well before unwanted messages make it to your inbox.
Jay recommends using Gmail for business—Google’s G Suite, because they’re made a lot of strides on in reducing the amount of spam the average user has to touch each day.
“Switching your business to using Gmail as your underlying platform is without a doubt the most effective way to control spam,” says Jay. “It’s got an astoundingly good spam filter, which is easily trained to ignore ‘false positives,’ that is, emails that you want to read but get routed to your spam folder.”
Train your email filter
Intelligent, robust filters that minimize spam or email clutter are a strength of Gmail and many of today’s top email services. Using an email filter is also the FTC’s top tip for reducing spam or other unwanted emails. You can set up and customize filters that ensure that the emails you want to receive come to your inbox, and other emails can go, well, pretty much wherever you want.
“If you need those relevant emails, you may need to create filters (easy to do in Gmail) to route those irrelevant emails to your trash directly,” says Jay.
Talk with your team or your IT department about email filter options for your organization’s accounts (and also see if some training is needed to help people get up to speed on how to use filters).
Filters can do many things for optimizing your inbox and decreasing clutter, such as:
- Making sure that emails from important senders (such as your boss and team members) never go to spam and always comes to your inbox
- Routing different newsletters to specific labels or folders
- Skipping the inbox but retaining the message in another part of your email account
- Archiving or trashing a message automatically (and even mark it as read)
- Automatically sending a templated response (or in Gmail, a “Canned Response”)
While Gmail has a robust spam detection component, mistakes do happen. Sometimes spam comes to your inbox, and that’s what that handy-dandy “report spam” button is for. Sometimes, too, legitimate emails go to your spam folder. When that happens, you can go into the message, hit the “not spam” button, and/or set a filter to never mark that sort of message (or messages from that sender) as spam.
The most essential step, though, is to take action, says Jay.
Limit or unsubscribe
While it’s great to train your email filter and cut down on email clutter, there is, of course, no cure like prevention. Decreasing the spam you see starts with taking steps to minimize the amount of spam that can ever make its way to your email in the first place.
Use throwaway or disposable email addresses. Some professionals keep their primary email address offline and out of public view, and instead directly give it only to personal contacts. For online activities, email subscriptions, and so on, they’ll then use a separate email address. That separate email can then catch things like newsletters, order confirmations, email offers, and so on—and the primary email can stay focused on emails that need your full attention.
“Use a ‘burner’ email address when filling out web forms or asking for more information from companies you don’t work with,” suggests Jay. “This can help keep your work email cleaner. If that account becomes a burden, simply close the account and start another.”
Relentlessly unsubscribe, opt out, and change email list preferences. Is that email list you subscribed to suddenly sending you things that you didn’t think you signed up for? Some lists allow you to customize your email preferences so that you receive fewer emails or emails only on particular topics. For lists that simply do not provide value or that send more email than you want, unsubscribe.
Where possible, mask email addresses online. For any email addresses that are listed publicly or visibly, talk with your IT department or website manager about how those email addresses can be masked from spammers. From graphics to coding techniques, there are many ways to mask an email so that people can see it, but bots or spam harvesters cannot.
Do not open spam emails—period. For starters, spam emails may contain false links or virus-infected attachments that can harm your system and/or steal data. So if it’s clear to you that a message is spam, steer clear.
When to hit the “report spam” button
The “report spam” button is a powerful yet simple weapon. It appears in every email message you open.
“If you’re using Gmail, using the spam button helps to train a system with a lot of data inputs—millions of Gmail users. Google will also send ‘abuse’ messages to the sender,” says Jay. “If you’re using Outlook or Apple Mail, it may only train a resident system on your local computer, if your system is using a ‘trainable’ filter. Or you might only be sending the file to the Spam folder, which might feel good, but doesn’t do anything to solve the issue. In other cases, you might be training your company firewall software to block those messages as they come in.”
There’s a big difference between trash and spam, though.
“Just trashing those messages unread won’t stop the flow of unwanted messages,” explains Jay. “The best option is to make sure you didn’t actually subscribe. Email services like MailChimp and ConstantContact take those seriously, as they don’t want their service being marked as a source of spam. It’s their livelihood.”
With that “report spam” power, though, comes a big question: Should you ever mark an email as spam just because it’s annoying?
“Absolutely, yes,” says Jay. “Messages marked/flagged as spam will get the attention of those publishers, eventually. Legit email marketing vendors will flag accounts that have too many reports of spam, and they’ll take action (even suspending the accounts of the sender) if the problem is pervasive enough.”
Leave that spam alone
The absolute best prevention tip? Leave suspect emails unopened.
“Once opened, many emails make a request for data (such as image files) from an external server, which triggers a “message has been opened” notification to the sender of the email,” says Jay. “So you’ve just acknowledged your email is a valid one, and you can expect more spam will be on its way.”
If you’re unsure about an email, instead of opening it, scan it in preview mode. Check their box from your list view and hit “report spam.” As you get rid of spam, unsubscribe from legitimate but unwanted emails, and in general delete unwanted messages unopened, you’ll do something else too.
“You can help reduce future spam as the sender doesn’t want to waste resources on invalid accounts,” says Jay.
So the best way to get rid of those unwanted emails? Make your email as unattractive to spammers as their junk is to you.
Posted in: Email