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Don't Let Spam Hurt Your Business

Helpful advice for screening your e-mail to keep the messages you want and dumping the rest

"I'm a business consultant who relies heavily on e-mail to communicate with my clients. I advertise my consulting practice a great deal, and because I always include my e-mail address, I get lots of e-mail every day from people who have seen my advertising and want more information about what I do. My biggest problem is spam. I'm getting more than 1,000 spam messages every day, and it's taking me close to an hour a day to wade through all the junk. That's probably too much time, but I'm absolutely petrified that I'm going to delete an important message from one of my clients in the mistaken belief that it's spam. Is there any other way I can get this spam out of my life so that only the 'good' e-mail messages will get through?"

E-mail is fast becoming the predominant means of communications between consultants (such as myself) and their clients. It's fast, it's cheap, and it happens in "real time." The bad news is that it's often tough to tell important e-mail messages from spam. Just in the 60 seconds it took me to write this paragraph, I've received 10 spam messages. Oops, there's another one.

Under last year's federal Can-Spam Act, spammers must allow you to "opt out" from receiving future messages, but the act fell far short of making spam illegal. Do you really have the time to follow the "opt out" procedures in every spam message you receive? Even if you did, how do you know the spammer won't put your address on another junk mailing list and e-mail it to 10,000 of his spammer friends? Until Congress or the Federal Trade Commission sets up a "do not spam" registry of e-mail addresses similar to that already in effect for telemarketing phone calls (and to my knowledge, no efforts are currently being made in that direction), we're on our own when it comes to dealing with spam messages and the people who send them (many of whom, out of fairness, are small, family businesses like your own that are trying to make a living in the rough and tumble world of the Internet).

There are literally dozens of spam filter software programs you can buy that can filter out the worst of the spam messages you get each day (type "spam filter software" into your favorite search engine to track some down), but they all work on the same, somewhat limited, principle. The program scans your e-mail address book, and anyone who sends you an e-mail who's not on that list is considered a "spammer," and treated accordingly. While the better programs will give that someone a chance to prove they're not sending spam, most prospective customers won't take the time to deal with your watchdog software program. (They'll probably think the program's response is itself a spam message and will delete it accordingly.) So what do you do?

Check your e-mail frequently. If you check your messages just once or twice a day, you're likely to have a couple of hundred messages to review. If you check your e-mail messages every 15 minutes or so, you'll have only about a dozen, and it will be easier to spot the good ones.

Use your preview feature. Most e-mail programs have a preview feature that allows you to see the contents of an e-mail message before you officially open it. You should be using this feature anyway to make sure you don't download any computer viruses or worms, but this feature is also helpful in spotting spam. Look at the preview page first before looking at the subject heading or who it's from. Also, if the preview takes more than a split second to load, it's probably spam.

Make the subject heading distinctive. When you scroll through your e-mail, you're offered the option of identifying messages either by the sender's name or by a subject heading. You should look at both before deleting any message-there are real people out there with names like "Mohammed O'Reilly." Tell your clients they should put their name or a key phrase into the subject heading of each e-mail message they send you, so you'll be sure to spot it. For example, if you send me an e-mail, you should put "Re: your column" or "Succeeding in Your Business" into the subject heading. If I see words like that, I'll take a closer look at your message. More general subject headings, such as "Thought you should see this" or "I've got a problem" are much more likely to be spam, and if I'm in a rush, I'll probably delete your message without reading the preview page.

Use a code phrase. Of course, when it comes to prospective customers, you can't call them in advance and tell them what to put in their subject headings. So whenever you include your e-mail address in your advertising, Web site or other material, be sure to say something like "Mention 'Code X' in your e-mail subject heading for better service." That way, whenever you see "Code X" in an e-mail heading, you'll know it's from someone who saw your advertisement.

Check twice before deleting. When you delete an e-mail message, it usually goes to a "Deleted Items" folder before it disappears entirely from the face of the Earth. Before deleting the items in your "Deleted Items" folder, which you should do at least daily, review the sender names and subject headings one last time before sending them into oblivion. I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from deleting an important message.

If anybody out there has any other solutions, please let me know. This is a problem I live with daily, and I'll be happy to credit you in a future column. And be sure to include the words "Your Column on Spam" in the subject heading, to ensure a quick response.


Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS TV series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on Small Business Television Network. E-mail him at cennico@legalcareer.com. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. Copyright 2004 Clifford R. Ennico. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.

Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.

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