The resurgence of spam is generating a lot of attention right now, so here's a quick explanation of what's going on, and what to do about it.
One reason spam is once again clogging up your inbox: Spammers have turned anti-spam technology against us right now.
Many Web sites require users to create accounts by typing in a word or scrambled letters that appear in a graphic (and sometimes, that word is too hard to see). That technology is called CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. Web site designers employ this tedious process because it prevents spammers from creating millions of fake accounts -- it turns out to be a very difficult problem for computers to "read" images.
Frustrated by CAPTCHA, spammers turned the tool on its head. Now, about half of all spam comes as pictures, which are often impossible for computers to distinguish from snapshots of the grandkids. Image spam is the big reason your inbox seems out of control again. A more detailed explanation of what's going on was provided in Friday's column.
Similar to the problem of computer viruses, there is no simple solution for spam. Instead, it's a cat-and-mouse game between the bad guys and the companies trying to send us our e-mail. So unfortunately I can't tell you precisely what to do to clean up your inbox. But there are some things you can do to minimize your exposure to spam, and to help the institutions that are fighting it.
The first and most important step: Remove your e-mail address from any Web sites where it appears. Web "scraping" of addresses is still an effective tool for spammers. Don't make their job any easier. If you must post the address, turn it into an image and post that. You might as well use the techniques the spammers use.
Guard your e-mail address like your credit card number. Only give your primary address to people you trust. Create "junk" accounts for newsletters and Web sites that force you to log in with an e-mail address. When they get overrun with spam, discard them.
Also, when at all possible, don't open e-mail from people you don't know. Opening some spam automatically sends a message, sort of like a return receipt, back to the spammer. Now he or she will know you're a live person, and you'll never hear the end of it.
For additional information on spam, you can browse through some of the stories we've done at MSNBC.com, including a project called "Spam Wars" we published a couple of years ago. At the home page for the project is an interesting infographic on the cat and mouse games spammers and anti-spammers play.
For a more detailed list of suggestions, click through Spam: What is it and how to fight it.
*If you really want to get involved in fighting spam, you'll have to learn how to read e-mail headers, then regularly send complaints to Internet service providers that spammers use. Here's a simple primer on reading headers is available here.
*A fascinating article by Paul Graham on the origins of the spam-fighting efforts, and the creation of intelligent filters to fight spam, is located here:
*A thorough description of word salad -- those random text blocks you see in unwanted e-mail
*A great blog on all things spam
Spam is governed by the CAN-SPAM Act, which sets out the legal requirements for commercial e-mailers. Many doubt the laws efficacy, but the Federal Trade Commission explains the highlights
*The agency also asks anyone receiving spam to forward it to the agency, so it has a database of real spam to pick through when it is filing CAN-SPAM complaints.
Reports can be filed at the agency's spam Web site
*Those receiving stock-related spam should also send a copy to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which files spam securities fraud cases, at email@example.com.