Let’s Talk About Spam – Do You Really Want To Do That?

A very long time ago, in a previous life, I used to work for Radio Shack. This was back in the dark days before things like the Internet, where computers were just getting into the 486 series, and Windows 3.1, and your email address, if you were one of the very few who had one, was either a number at CompuServ or your handle at AOL. Radio Shack did have computers, and we’d try to maintain a customer database, where we’d be able to pull you up by your last name and the last four digits of your telephone number.

While there was a fairly high percentage of repeat customers who understood the process, and would give out the information when they made a “big ticket” purchase, more often than not customers were actively defensive when asked for their information. They’d give their name for a receipt, and if they were paying by credit card their address, but ask for the phone number and more often than not you had a very unhappy customer. Fast forward far too many years, and the typical transaction at a cash register starts with the cashier asking for an email address, and the customer rattling it off without really paying attention to what they are doing.

Go to practically any website, and to either leave a comment on most blogs, or get to the really “premium” content, you have to enter an email address. To make a purchase at a retail store, they ask you for an email address. Register for access to a site online, they ask for an email address. The question I want to ask you today is, do you really want to give all those people your email address?

People ask me all the time why they get so much spam, how the spammers get their email addresses, and what can they do to stop it. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy! Now, reputable websites make very clear what they will, and will not do with your personal information including your email address. You just have to read their privacy policy, their acceptable use policy, and sometimes some other policies. Cashiers who ask you for your email address at the register are just doing their job, and if you ask them for their company’s privacy policy, you will get a blank look, but if you ask the manager, you’ll at least get referred to their website. What are all these people looking to do with your email address?

Many websites just want to use it as your unique identifier and to communicate important information to you. Services like Twitter and Tumblr (and many others) just let you use your email address as your login, and I have every confidence that I have never been sent a piece of spam from either of them or as a result of giving them my email address. But many retailers are asking for your email address so they can send you advertising, and coupons and special offers. A lot of that stuff may sound good up front, but six weeks from now you will just look at it as spam.

Even with the best of intentions and a rock solid privacy policy, it seems you cannot go a week without reading about some business whose website was compromised, and whose customer database was compromised. There’s an actual monetary value for a list of legitimate email addresses, and while the estimates vary wildly, the simple fact is that spammers will pay money for a database of email addresses known to be good. Depending upon the source, they can infer much about you, and make their mailings more targeted.

So what do you do? Well, there are two extremes, and a lot of grey in the middle. You could refuse to give out your email address to anyone, or you could shrug your shoulders, figure it’s the cost of doing business in this day and age, and give it out to everyone, or you could use your “real” email address for the things you know and trust, and set up a second email address on a free service for the things that want an email address that you know will work, but that you don’t care about. Check it once a month or so to see what content is needed, or just when you need a password reset, but other than that, let it fill and automatically delete older messages as necessary. That way, you keep your primary mailbox as spam free as possible, and can still check your “spam trap” mailbox for the occasional receipt or other need.

Written by Casper Manes

I currently work as a Senior Messaging Consultant for one of the premier consulting firms in the world, I cut my teeth on Exchange 5.0, and have worked with every version of Microsoft’s awesome email package since then, as well as MHS, Sendmail, and MailEnable systems. I've written dozens of articles on behalf of my past employers, their partners, and others, and I finally decided to embrace blogging and social media, so please follow me on Twitter @caspermanes if you enjoy my posts.


  1. Brian Evans · June 20, 2012

    Probably everyone who knows where their spam comes from uses the two-inbox approach. The thing is that it puts you, as a decent human being, in a rough spot. On the one hand, you want to keep your information safe, on the other you probably would like to hear about special offers, and want to help a customer service rep meet their quota and maybe earn a bonus. Without employing two inboxes, you have to either sacrifice your privacy or your want to help people legitimately. Obviously, this doesn’t include throwing your information around wildly for unscrupulous scammers to pick up, but if you’re careful on several fronts, you can avoid that much more spam.

  2. Cathy Tess · June 21, 2012

    I agree with Brian. Most of us have multiple email addresses and when we give an email address at a site, we rarely give our primary email address. In a sense, what we give isn’t as valuable as a credit card number or a phone number and this is why we don’t care that much – at least till the moment we start getting tons of spam but if it is a non important email address, this isn’t a huge problem.

  3. Dominic Thomas · June 29, 2012

    I understand the relative indifference or lack of prudence in giving away email addresses. Compared to the phone calls, spam emails are easier to “manage”. Phone calls are intrusive and urgent. Dealing with them could not be scheduled. When a person calls, you cannot drop or ignore the call without being rude. Whereas with emails, you can decide when to deal with it at your most convenient time.

    This does not mean however that spam is no longer inconvenient and annoying. It’s just not as annoying as phone calls. It does not mean, too, that you should just give away your email address to just about anyone who asks. The most prudent thing to do, if you really do want to be informed of promos, is to give away a secondary, less important email address.

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