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Mortgage technology and beyond

National Mortgage Professional
Dec 29, 2004

Avoiding the spam monsterChip Cummings, CMCBlocking spam I hate spam ... even more than you do! Despite the fact that federal legislation (the CAN-SPAM Act) and many state regulations have been put in place to try and protect you, the reality is that spam, the sending of unsolicited e-mail messages, seems to be as rampant as ever. Although the problem won't go away, there are things you can do to protect yourself and minimize the problem. As a loan officer and specialist in technology marketing, I routinely send out several hundred thousand e-mails a month as part of my marketing efforts, but they are all "opt-in," by-request-only messages. When people trust you with their e-mail and personal information, it is important that you take steps to protect that information. I use an online database tracking system, run by a large third-party service, (www.SimpleAutoresponders.com), to professionally track all "opt-in" and "opt-out" requests and send out all e-mail messages and e-zine subscriptions. In addition, it uses a series of specific "response addresses" to eliminate any likelihood of my personal e-mail addresses becoming contaminated by spam lists. However, in my corporate e-mail domains, I still receive several hundred e-mails a day and have learned that, to eliminate spam, the first step is in understanding where it starts. Where spam comes from Automated systems are capable of sending out millions of e-mails per hour, but spammers need constant food (new e-mail addresses) to feed this huge monster. If it seems to you that once your e-mail address gets hit, the spam mushrooms out of control very quickly, you're right. Spammers trade e-mail addresses faster than kids trade candy on a school playground, and you become the bait in a major feeding frenzy! To obtain new e-mail addresses, spammers use three primary sources: Web spiders, generation software and the purchase or trading of lists. Web spiders are automation programs that search Web sites, news articles, blogs, Web links and other online content. The "spiders" harvest and collect all e-mail addresses they find and collate them into a database. Generation software takes a database of e-mails, looks for patterns or domain names and automatically generates mutations of e-mail addresses. Once database lists are compiled, they are then used, abused and sold or traded to other spammers to do the same. While it seems like an unstoppable cycle, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your company from the spam monster! Protecting yourself Don't look for help from the authorities. In most cases, federal and state laws won't protect you, as most spam is generated and sent from other countries, beyond the reach of U.S. governments. The first (and most obvious) step to protect your own inbox is to invest in virus protection software and a quality spam filter program. However, while there are some great spam filter software solutions available, many of them will trap "good" e-mails that you want to receive. Also, spammers are becoming much smarter in beating those spam filter programs. It's better to stop it at the source--your e-mail addresses. After all, a telemarketer can't call you if he can't get your telephone number! Here are some specific tips to protect yourself: 1. Use multiple addresses Have a personal mailbox that you only use for close friends and associates, a business e-mail address you use for clients and marketing purposes and a third mailbox for ordering goods and services, requesting information or anything else online. 2. Don't post it anywhere Do not post your actual e-mail address (or those of your employees) on a Web site, including your own. Spiders recognize the e-mail address format, so you are inviting spam if you list it or have a direct link listed on a Web site. Instead of posting "john@xyzcompany.com," you can list it as "john (at) xyzcompany.com" and then put in parentheses next to it, "replace 'at' with '@' to e-mail me." Although that seems like a pain to receive legitimate e-mail, it will make the address untraceable for Web spiders. 3. Use an image instead Online spiders (and search engines) are not able to read text that appears in a picture or graphic on a Web site page. If you have to display an actual e-mail address, post it as part of an image, such as a .jpg or .gif file. While this also creates an extra step in the process for a client or prospect to e-mail you, the address will be protected. 4. Use an "e-mail form" Another way to prevent spam from originating from your Web site (or another site) is to not use any e-mail address at all. Instead, use an "e-mail form," where the visitor or client enters his name, e-mail address and message, clicks a button and an autoresponder system automatically sends you the e-mail message. I use this option almost exclusively for online sites and marketing campaigns. A word of caution, however: make sure that the form script you use does not allow your e-mail address to be visible in the source code of the Web page. If the Web form contains the e-mail address in the code, the spiders can still see it, even if you can't on the page! 5. Make it difficult to guess Generation programs use automation to guess what your e-mail address is. It's not hard to figure out that an easy way to reach John Williams at XYZ Company might be to e-mail john@xyzcompany, or jwilliams@xyzcompany or johnw@xyzcompany. Spammers use a "dictionary" attack on names contained within company directories (which are often online), association databases, membership rosters, etc., to test possible combinations. Make your e-mail harder to guess by using a number, (such as johnwilliams7@xyzcompany), or including a "dot" (.) in your e-mail address, (such as john.williams@xyzcompany). While not foolproof, the dot makes it almost impossible for spammers or automated programs to guess your e-mail address. Spam is a time-consuming pain in the neck, but it's a reality that we have to deal with, and it's not going away, because the spammers make money by sending it. That doesn't mean you have to abandon your e-mail address every few months or spend hundreds of dollars on specialized software filters. Just use some common sense and these few tricks to stay hidden from the spam monster! Chip Cummings, CMC is president of Northwind Financial Corporation, an originator, international speaker, trainer and consultant to the mortgage industry. He is also the author of "Stop Selling and Start Listening! Marketing Strategies That Create Top Producers." Chip can be reached at (866) 977-7900 or via e-mail at info@chipcummings.com.
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