The widespread use of e-mail is one of the greatest advances of the internet boom and many people, certainly in the developed world now have at least one e-mail address which they regularly use. In medicine, certainly between health professionals and increasingly between health professionals and their patients, e-mail is a key communication medium.
The downside is that we are open to unwarranted and unwelcome e-mail called spam. For a good definition read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-mail_spam, but most of us don’t need a definition, as we are the recipients and often on a daily basis. So how can you avoid it? Well it is not easy, a recent report from Microsoft covered by the BBC news website states that an incredible 97% of all Internet e-mails are unwanted, and as we know, drugs and body enhancements feature high on the list.
There are plenty of tips around to minimise the impact of spam and a good archive of common hints and tips has been assembled by the high respected McAfee organisation who are anti-virus and Internet security software people and can be found at http://www.mcafee.com/us/threat_center/anti_spam/spam_tips.html. Much of it is common sense but there is no harm in quickly running through this excellent collection. Also check out http://email.about.com/od/spamfightingtips/Spam_Fighting_Tips_Tricks_and_Secrets.htm for further advice.
One useful technique in combating spam is to own your own personal domain and generate a number of e-mail addresses for use in different situations. Buying your own domain (it could be personalised to your own name, assuming nobody else has purchased the domain) is easy and relatively inexpensive. I personally use the excellent service from www.1and1.co.uk, though there are plenty of good commercial organisations around who offer this service. Rotating e-mail addresses, generated from the same domain can confuse spammers but can also confuse your regular legitimate e-mail correspondents.
Another way of fighting spam is to use a disposable e-mail address and a collection of them can be found from http://email.about.com/od/disposableemailservices/Disposable_Email_Address_Services.htm. I have personally used http://www.mailinator.com/ and I have found it to be really useful and simple to use.
Just invent an e-mail address on the spot which ends in @mailinator.com and as soon as the e-mail hits the mailinator servers, a temporary account is auto-generated. However remember that the e-mail account is publicly available and the account is eventually auto-deleted after a short time. I find it useful for triggering services on a website which requires a link to be sent to an e-mail address which needs to be activated before access is permitted to the web service. This way the web site does not get access to your real e-mail address.
Another mechanism is to adopt an e-mail account from one of the many free providers around, a good example is the e-mail service from Google, which contains spam filters. Don’t also forget that there is plenty of software out there, some of it is free that helps to fight spam. I use such a filter as part of an Internet security suite and find it very effective. However I occasionally check the folder contents to make sure it has not trapped a wanted e-mail. In reality, this is now a rare occurrence.
No matter which method you use, nothing is fool proof and always check your spam folders on a regular basis to make sure that an important e-mail is not treated as spam and moved away from your inbox without you seeing it first. If you use another solution which works for you, I would be interested to hear about it.
Harry Brown is a general practitioner in Leeds.
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