Fighting spam

Spam is annoying us all and many people are looking for a solution that will reduce the amount of spam in their mailbox. Plenty of solutions exist, but I myself chose a very simple solution that will allow me to “name & shame” those companies that leak my email address to those spammers. And my solution also comes with a nice spam filter too, although it’s not free. I pay about 60 Euro’s per year for my solution, which is reasonable simple, provides me with web mail and a good spam filter plus nice, additional features that are very practical.

It starts by registering a domain name. In my case, it’s wimtenbrink.nl but for this discussion I will use the name example.com since this is a special domain name reserved for these kinds of examples. Registering a domain name costs between 5 Euro’s and 20 Euro’s, depending on your registrar. Since I live in the Netherlands, I chose VIP Internet to register this domain, since they provide me some easy options to set up my domain, allowing me to adjust several settings and changes I do to my domain name there are handled quite fast. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit expensive (EUR 19,95 per year) but they offer a good quality.

Next, I’ve purchased a Google Apps for Business account for my domain name. This is free for individuals and small teams but I decided to buy the more expensive package which costs US $ 50 per year per user. With just one user, this costs me $ 50 per year. And it removes the advertisements in my mailbox. Plus, my mailbox is 25 GB in size instead of the standard 10 GB for individuals.

Next, the technical part. You’ll need to connect your domain to your Google Apps account. This will require some knowledge and experience with the Domain Name Service of the internet, or short: DNS. Using the tools provided by your registrar you will have to set up Google Apps as your mailbox. This probably means that you will have to remove a few DNS entries and add a few new ones. This isn’t very complex but if you mess it up, your domain cannot be reached anymore. So, be careful, try to get some basic knowledge about DNS first. (Although you can always fix problems later.)

You can also connect more things from Google to your domain name. You could, for example, generate special URLs on your domain name that will point to your Google Calendar or your Google Drive. And Google provides plenty of other practical tools that you can use and connect to your domain, including the hosting of a few simple webpages.

Once you’ve connected both, you will have your own, personal domain name with a single email address. Let’s say you’ve registered example.com and your new address is admin@example.com. Your Google Apps account will provide you with a web mail interface that is very similar to GMail itself. But without the advertisements for me. But Google Apps will allow you do even more, like creating multiple aliases for your email address. In my case, I could create the alias wim@example.com and use that as a mail address that I share with friends and family. For companies, I generally create an alias on the fly starting with the name of the company and ending with my domain name. Thus, if I provide Microsoft with an email address of mine, that would be microsoft@example.com.

And yes, creating email aliases on the fly is simple. Someone asks for an address, I just think of some random code to put in front of the @ sign and then append my domain name. It does require me to do one more thing, though. I need to set Google Apps up to use my admin@example.com address as a catch-all for all incoming email addresses on my domain name. Once I’ve done this, it doesn’t matter what’s in front of the @ because anything will be sent to this single email address.

But how does this stop spammers? Well, it doesn’t stop them but it tells me where the spammer retrieved my email address. For example, my email address for LinkedIn was something like linkedin@example.com. However, earlier this year LinkedIn was the victim of a hacker who managed to collect a whole database from their user database, including a lot of email addresses. One of those addresses was mine. And when I noticed that I started to receive spam at linkedin@example.com I immediately realized that LinkedIn had a huge problem with their security. It gave me a very early warning and told me who was responsible for leaking my email address.

There have been more companies who have leaked my email address to spammers, but because those email addresses tell me which company leaked my email address, I can just change my address for that company to e.g. linkedin-2@example.com and create a filter in my Google Apps account which will just drop anything that is sent to the old email address. Thus, the spam is gone but my contact with the company is still available.

I still receive about 10 spam messages every day but the Google spam filters are excellent in recognizing them, although they do have the occasional “false positive”. Checking my spam filter is therefore still important. But those addresses that are ‘contaminated’ by spammers are just filtered away, thus keeping my mailbox very clean. Only drawback is that some spammers realize that my domain has a catch-all mail account and thus they make up random names to get past the filters that I’ve set up, only to be caught by the Google spam filter.

As I said, Google Apps is also available in a free version and registering domain names can be done a bit less expensive. Finding a good domain name to use for this purpose is a bit more complex though, and I was lucky that my name was still available for me. Other people who happen to share my name will have to look for something different. I’m just paying more because of some additional bonuses provided by my registrar and by Google, which I use a lot.