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Tech Savvy: To spam or not to spam

H i i there Tech Savvy fans! This week I thought it would be great fun to take a look at something that everyone is familiar with — Spam.

Sure, you may say that it’s a terrible thing and that we need to avoid it at all costs. Phooey, I say! There may be detractors but I find Spam comforting in an odd way. It has stood the test of time and it has affected everyone from our Armed Forces to the road warriors on the streets. Some might even admit an addiction to Spam, they just can’t get enough. It’s easy enough to see why, despite its over-salted flavor and that curious jelly that with the sound it makes coming out of that tin, you have to ... what? You don’t mean that kind of Spam? Well, why didn’t you say so!

OK, onto the spam that affects our taste buds in the tech world. Just like the culinary mainstay, everyone has had a run in with spam. It invades our inbox on a daily basis, sometimes malicious, sometimes harboring a virus but always annoying.

I am fortunate enough to participate in a volunteer group led by the Brainerd Chamber called the Go Social committee. The first Thursday of every month we host a morning session that is dedicated to exploring many different areas of how the changing world of social media and technology is changing the way we do business. Everyone is welcome to attend and the meetings are held at 7:15 a.m. at the Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter, visit the Chamber’s website for more info on how you can join us. It’s a great opportunity to learn about some of the new things coming down the road and the round-table format ensures that everyone gets to benefit from each other’s expertise in multiple areas. I would strongly encourage any Tech Savvy fans who work with tech or media in their job consider attending, you’ll probably see me there, and I’d love to meet you if you can join us.

The last session we had focused on email blasts and some of the best practices and tips that we could come up with. One of the areas we spent a fair amount of time on was the dreaded spam filter and how a single word can determine if our email gets read. This got me thinking later on about how in this day and age spam has invaded not only our inbox, but also many other aspects of our tech lives. Let’s break it down.

Email spam

OK, here is the obvious one. You open your inbox and all you see are subject headers filled with promised of free products, enhancements and vacations. You then have to spend the next hour of your life — that you’ll never get back — sorting, unsubscribing and deleting each piece of junk. At best it’s just a waste of your time. However, social interaction is the most common way that hackers can steal your identity — clicking on rogue links can expose your personal information for the taking.

So, how can you determine the risks? For the most part you will recognize spam that is malicious (contains risks or viruses) because it’s insanely obvious. Example: “Deer Sir or Madam, I wish most respectful to ask your favor in helping reach children for best quality education. Please send contact and check for $30 US dollar to allow shipping your new help kit.” Spam? Ya, you betcha, and anytime they ask for money, you’re in trouble. Remember hearing about that poor, deposed, Nigerian prince that only needs your help in raising enough money to reclaim his crown?

Many of you read these and laugh at how ludicrous they sound — let’s be honest, my grammar isn’t that poor and my English teachers will be the first to tell you I was no grammar star. I read something interesting a while back that said if these sound so painfully obvious that only the most gullible will take action, that is precisely what the hope is. The truth of the matter is that these identity thieves use tactics that target the most vulnerable online users.

More common than the malicious spam is just your plain, old fashioned, I’m-a-snake-oil-product-buy-me. These are the emails you get that say you have to act now to get a free vacation, or that this miracle pill will make you lose weight and become irresistible to the opposite sex. Anyone who has had an email for more than a couple years, or since the 90s, gets these kinds of emails on a regular basis. While these are not things that will harm your computer, they’re still annoying. So, let’s take a look at how we can eliminate some of this clutter.

Every single email program has a spam filter. If you’re still getting a ton of these messages it just means that you need to adjust your settings. Most often the spam filter interface is either a slider bar or a level selector that you adjust based on your perception of spam. Your filter will block some newsletters you actually do want to receive unless you reduce the restrictions on your settings. You may also miss emails from new acquaintances or friends because your filter doesn’t recognize the contact and thinks it is spam.

Another way to deal with this is to “whitelist” these messages — this basically tells your spam filter that this particular message is not spam. This creates a safe list, or creates a contact, that your filter will recognize and allow through.

Similarly, you can also “blacklist” emails if you believe they are junk, this is also commonly known as “mark as spam” and will identify messages from that sender’s email address as junk.

One request from all of us legitimate businesses out there, if you wish you stop receiving our emails, please “unsubscribe” rather than marking it as junk. It will accomplish the same thing but emails that are marked as junk will accumulate a reputation for the sender that makes it increasingly difficult to provide legitimate information to opt in subscribers.

Social spam

Another rapidly growing method of spam is social spam. Have you noticed lately how your Facebook feed, not just the ads on the side, is being filled more and more with “sponsored” links?

Wait a minute you say, don’t you sell advertising and isn’t this really just another form of advertising? Well, yes and no. Yes, it is a form of advertising and technically anything that you do that you pay for to promote a product is advertising. But where I draw the difference line is in what those ads have been promoting. If I don’t find the advertising in my feed relevant to me, or directly applicable, I view that as spam. It is surprising that, with Facebook in particular, they are not targeting the ads a little better. Having used their PPC ad program before, one of their main proponents was their ability to use the demographic info to serve their ads to the right people. To date, the ads that appear in my news feed are completely worthless to me, therefore they are spam.

Unfortunately, at this point there isn’t a whole lot you can do about avoiding this and it seems like it’s just going to get worse. Thanks, Facebook, once again you’ve done something that everyone hates.

App spam

OK, so it’s not like my phone automatically downloads junk I don’t need or apps I won’t use. I do a pretty good job of that on my own and that contributes to what I call app spam. You’re on your phone, browsing the app store or the market and you find yourself inexplicably downloading every single app related to recipes, zombies or Gangam Style. It’s fun for a while but all of a sudden you open up your phone one day and you realize that your entire phone has been invaded by junk apps and you can’t find the ones that you really need.

There are also increasing reports of actual apps that make it into the market or store that actually contain malware (malicious software) that infects your phone and does weird things like sending text messages to every single contact you have. Like, a million text messages to every contact you have. Ouch.

Do yourself a favor and tidy up your apps every once in a while and pay attention to the ratings of the apps. If you’re getting less than four stars, take a moment and read some of the reviews and see what’s going on. Four star minimums seem a little high? See for yourself, it’s been my experience that anything less than 4 stars means they are either behind in developing for the latest OS version, or they have a glitchy program to begin with.


Facebook, stop commercializing my feed. Like I mentioned in the column, Facebook is increasingly commercializing the News Feed with sponsored ads and garbage. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t go on FB to get pummeled with pleas to join the latest Mob War, or Farmville Frenzy. I like my social network to be, well, social. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of businesses using FB and other social media to interact with their customers but do it responsibly and use social media to generate conversations with your customers and have a real conversation.

I never thought I would see the day I would wish that my News Feed would be filled with “stoopid” cat memes again but Facebook, you’ve proved me wrong. I’ll take a “can haz cheezeburger” over Slotomania inundation any day.