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Spamimmunization
(No, you won't find this word in the dictionary)

How to fight spam, junk mail, unwanted intruder advertising

Netscientia prides itself on being a success, and never once sending out an email for solicitation.

These unwanted intrusions are still part of everyday life, even with new federal and state laws to protect us. You can, and should, fight back, if you so desire. Here's a few tips in case you've had enough and care to reciprocate,

  On a fairly typical day last week, I received:

  • A prerecorded phone message pitching a mortgage refinancing service.
  • A "live" phone message offering me a debt consolidation loan.
  • Seven unsolicited faxes.
  • Two (more) postal credict card offers.
  • Several hundred spam e-mails with deceptive subject lines.
Um, Gee, It's Tempting, But, No Thanks!
  • My penis size is just fine, thank you.
  • I don't care to grab anyone's email passwords, but I appreciate the offer.
  • I don't need a free all expenses paid 10 day trip to paradise, I already live in Paradise, but I'll get back to you should that change.
  • My home mortgage is already at an all time low, but thanks for the dozen offers today to re-fi.
  • I have more credit cards then the law allows, but I'll keep yours, and the 780 other offers handy should I need a couple more.
And so on, and so forth

The volume of unwelcome marketing attacks wasn't remarkable. What is -- or should be -- of note is that all of these communications wereillegal.

Recorded phone messages and junk faxes have long been against the law. Live phone pitches became off-limits shortly after I signed up for the federal
Do-Not-Call List, and misleading spam was outlawed by the federal CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which took effect in January.

Yet the bombardment continues:

  • The Federal Trade Commission says it has logged well over 100,000 complaints about violations of the Do-Not-Call List since the registry took effect in October 2003.
  • Junk faxers continue to spew out unwanted, unsolicited ads, even after the Supreme Court in January upheld the constitutionality of the 1991 law banning them and the Federal Communications Commission slapped one of the most notorious offenders, Fax.com, with a record $5.4 million fine.
  • The volume of e-mail spam rose again in January, despite the CAN-SPAM Act. One provider of anti-spam software, Brightmail, found that 60% of the 85 billion e-mails it filtered in January 2004 were spam, up from 42% a year earlier.
  • Fraudulent e-mails were 4% of the total, compared with 1% in December 2003.
It's clear, privacy advocates say, that the federal government needs to kick its enforcement up a notch. But there's also a lot we as consumers can do both to protect our own privacy and aid regulators in the hunt for scofflaws.

For each type of incursion into your privacy, I'm offering three levels of response: the "no-brainer," or basic way to defend yourself; the "next step" for those who want a higher level of protection; and the "warrior stance," which can help fight these intrusions on a more global scale.

Telemarketing and junk faxes
The no-brainer. Sign up for the federal Do-Not-Call List online or by calling (888) 382-1222.

Despite the violations and complaints, privacy advocates say the federal registry does seem to be dramatically reducing telemarketing calls.

"From the information we've gotten from consumers, they have seen a significant decline in the number of telemarketing calls," said Jordana Beebe, spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "The FTC was pretty close when they said it would reduce calls by 80% or more."

Unsolicited faxes aren't covered by the do-not-call registry, since they were already banned under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

The next step. There are a host of other ways to block telemarketing and junk faxes.

  • Sign up for your state's do-not-call list. Most states with such lists share their data with the federal registry, said privacy expert Robert Ellis Smith, but your state may have stricter rules about who can and can't call. Some of the states that don't share with the federal registry include: Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

  • Don't call toll-free or 900 numbers unless you already have a business relationship with the company. Your phone number can be "harvested" from your call, even if you have Caller ID blocking, and sold for marketing purposes. If you must call, demand to be put on the company's do-not-call list and insist that your information not be sold.

  • Consider your phone choices. Some privacy advocates recommend an unlisted number or Caller ID systems, but Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal finds those to be an unnecessary expense and hassle. He recommends listing your phone number without your address, to foil most marketers, and having "distinctive ringing" on your phone line so that friends and family trigger one kind of ring, while outsiders trigger another.

  • Tell companies you do business with that you don't want to be contacted. The federal Do-Not-Call List exempts calls from companies when you have a business relationship. But even these companies are required to put you on their do-not-call lists if you ask.

  • When you donate, tell charities and nonprofits not to contact you or sell your information. Charities and nonprofits are exempted from the federal do-not-call registry, but they also must maintain an internal do-not-call list.

  • Don't give out your phone or fax number. Seems obvious, but you probably give out your number way more often than necessary. There's no reason, for example, to include your number when filling out warranty cards, product registrations and magazine subscriptions requests. If required to give your number, demand to be put on the company's do-not-call list.

  • If you receive a junk fax with a toll-free opt-out number, use it. Unlike spam e-mails, where opt-out options seem to bring on more spam, junk faxers generally respond by taking your number off their lists, privacy advocates said. If there's no toll-free number or the number doesn't work, consider reporting the faxer to the FCC (see below).

  • Review the steps below for blocking direct-mail solicitations. There's lots of overlap between telemarketers, junk faxers and junk mailers.

    The warrior stance. If you really want to strike some blows for a telemarketing-free world, consider the following.

  • Report do-not-call violators. There's a complaint form right on the FTC Web site. You also can contact your state's attorney general. Regulators can't investigate each and every violation, but they do look for patterns of abuse. Your report can help build their cases. Junk faxers should be reported to the FCC in writing, with a copy of the fax attached. Junkfaxes.org describes which addresses to use and the information to include.

  • Sue them. Some anti-telemarketing crusaders make a hobby of suing telemarketers in small claims and other courts. If you're interested, you can start with Ben Livingston's site, Zen and the Art of Small Claims. Arizona attorney Richard Keyt offers resources, including a sample demand letter to send to junk faxers. You also can send $10 for a copy of Private Citizen's booklet, "So you want to sue a telemarketer."

  • Goad your lawmakers. The massive, favorable response to the federal do-not-call law (more than 50 million numbers registered in its first few weeks) drove home the message to politicians that their constituents want to be left alone. Keep up the pressure with letters and e-mails urging them to make sure the law gets enforced.

    Junk mail
    The no-brainers. Use the opt-out services for general junk mail and credit card solicitations. These will reduce but not eliminate unwanted mailings.

  • Write the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service at PO Box 643, Carmel NY 10512, including the name and address of all household members you want deleted from members' mailing lists. You also can opt out online, but the service costs $5.

  • Call (888) 5 OPT OUT, a service maintained by the three major credit reporting companies, to be removed from marketing lists the credit bureaus provide to credit card companies. You'll need to provide your Social Security number and other identifying information.

    The next step. A growing number of companies that collect data are offering opt-out options. Among them:

  • Real estate data companies. Two companies that collect and sell data from public tax assessor records are Acxiom, which has an opt-out hotline at (877) 774-2094, and DataQuick, whose opt-out hotline is (877) 970-9171.

  • Phone companies. Call yours and demand your number be taken off any marketing lists. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a partial list of opt-out numbers for telephone companies.

  • Your doctor. A federal law that took effect in April 2003 requires medical care providers to give you a copy of their privacy policies and to allow you to opt out of any marketing efforts.

  • Avoid sweepstakes. Their real purpose is usually to collect a list of names and addresses for marketers.

  • Be alert for opt-out choices. Look for boxes you can check on forms, applications and Web sites that let you stay off marketing lists. If you can't find a box, consider taking your business elsewhere or write a letter telling the business, charity or other organization that you don't want your information sold or shared.

  • Be wary of loyalty cards. They can offer great deals, but often at the expense of your privacy. If you do decide to use them, you can often leave the address and phone number blank.

  • Respond to privacy policy notices. Financial institutions are supposed to send you information each year about how they might use your data, and give you a chance to opt out. You should only have to respond once to these annual mailings.

  • Widen your net. Any organization to which you belong could sell its mailing list. That includes professional associations, religious groups, nonprofits, museums -- the list goes on and on. When renewing your membership or donating, include a letter demanding that your personal information not be shared or sold. You can threaten to stop attending/donating/doing business with the recipient if it fails to honor your wishes.

    The warrior stance. The Do-Not-Call List is, unfortunately, expected to lead to a new surge in junk mail. You can fight the trend in the following ways:

  • Subscribe to anti-junk services like the one provided by Private Citizen for $10. These services say they have access to many more junk mailing lists and ways to target and defeat persistent junk mailers.

  • Sue them. Many of those crusading against telemarketers and spam are also taking on junk mailers. Check out the links above.

  • Goad your lawmakers. Besides being irritating, junk mail takes an environmental toll -- in paper, compact discs, product samples and wrapping that are created and then (more often then not) tossed directly into the trash. If that bothers you, or you're just irritated by the volume of mail you get, consider contacting your lawmakers about setting up a national Do Not Mail list.

    Spam and pop-ups
    The no-brainer. If you've been on the Internet more than about five minutes, you've probably read about the basic ways you can cut down on spam: using spam filters, keeping your e-mail address off Web sites and out of chat rooms, not opening or responding to spam.

    The next step. Look for "spyware" that's been secretly installed on your computer. These programs secretly track your movements and lurk on an estimated 9 out of 10 computers. Spyware can spawn legions of pop-up ads, or hijack your browser and force you to visit unwanted Web sites. (The most odious specialize in sticking porn in your face.) Spyware also can collect data about you and send it to companies without your knowledge.

  • Activate spyware detectors in your antivirus software. The two major antivirus programs, McAfee and Norton, have spyware detectors in their latest versions.

  • Download free spyware detection software. Free programs include Spybot Search and Destroy and Lavasoft Ad-aware - my personal favorites.

    The warrior stance.

  • Sue them. Anti-spam crusaders are taking their battles to state and small claims courts. Use the links above as a starting point, or just type "suing spammers" into any search engine.

  • Goad your lawmakers. The CAN-SPAM Act overrode some state laws that were seen as tougher and more likely to have an effect. You can urge your congressional representatives to put some teeth in the federal law or at least push for active enforcement of its provisions. Identity theft again tops the list of consumer complaints, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission. Frank W. Abagnale, a reformed thief, is a respected authority on identity theft and other forms of fraud. His book, "Catch Me If You Can," which details his criminal escapades, is the latest Steven Spielberg movie and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. Frank Abagnale wrote this commentary for Bankrate.com.

    Identity theft is one of those things you're probably not very concerned about if it hasn't happened to you. But, in my career, I don't know of any crime that's easier -- and easier to get away with -- than identity theft.

    Gaurding Your Indentity and Thwarting Would Be Crooks

    In 2001, there were approximately 500,000 identity theft victims; that's people who actually filed a police report. It cost banks and credit-card companies about $5 billion because they ultimately pick up the tab.

    But the consumer doesn't get away scot-free. The average victims will spend $1,374 and 175 hours cleaning up their credit reports. That's a great deal of time and money out of their own pockets.

    It's so simple to assume someone's identity today. If you go to the grocery store and write a check for $52, the check has your full name and address, and maybe your phone number. It also has the full name and address of the bank where the check is drawn, as well as your account number. Maybe the clerk asks for your driver's license number, which in 19 states is your Social Security number.

    So, they write your Social Security number on the face of the check, then they ask for a date of birth and a work phone number. Now they can call and find out where you're employed.

    Hundreds of eyes
    Hundreds of people can see this check: people at the grocery store and the check-clearing house. Then it goes back to the payee bank, and if you don't get your checks in your statement, it goes to a company that shreds them. (We hope they get shredded and don't make copies.) So much information on just that little piece of paper, and that's just one way.

    ID theft started years ago with, "If I can get enough information, I can apply for a Visa. I'll use the card for two weeks and throw it away." But now it's, "If I can get enough information, I can get a cell phone, I can get a car, a mortgage, I can go to work for a company under contract labor and have somebody else pay the taxes."

    Criminals realize it's the simplest scam in the world. No one has to see your face or know who you are.

    Only amateurs hack into computers; pros hack into people. If I want a database in a bank, I'm not going to break into their database when all I have to do is sit in front of a bank where people are smoking, walk up to someone and ask where they work in the bank. Then I say, "How would you like to make a lot of money? Give me this information off the screen and I'll give you $5,000."

    If you did that to 10 people 25 years ago, two would say yes and eight would report you. People had more ethics and character then. Now, if I can do it and get away with it, it's OK. It's a lot easier to approach someone and get the information than break into the database.

    We live in a time when if you make it easy to steal from you, chances are someone will.
    Consumers have to be much smarter.

    10 tips to prevent identity theft
    Identity thieves rob more than 500,000 Americans every year. These steps will help you reduce your risk of identity theft.

    1. Guard that Social Security number
    The most important step is to guard your Social Security number -- it is the key to your credit report and banking accounts and is the prime target of criminals. Do not print your Social Security number on your checks. After applying for a loan, credit card, rental or anything else that requires a credit report, request that your Social Security number on the application be truncated or completely obliterated and your original credit report be shredded before your eyes or returned to you once a decision has been made. A lender or rental manager needs to retain only your name and credit score to justify a decision.

    2. Monitor your credit report
    Credit reports can alert you to activity in your financial records. A monitoring service, such as Privacy Guard, will notify you whenever someone applies for credit in your name or checks your credit history. You then can be proactive; call the person and ask, "Why are you checking my credit?" It might be a landlord or employer; it might be legitimate.

    3. Buy a shredder and use it
    Indentity thieves may use your garbage to obtain personal information. Shred all old bank and credit statements, as well as "junk mail" credit-card offers, before trashing them. Use a crosscut shredder -- they cost more than regular shredders but are superior.

    4. Remove your name from marketing lists
    The three credit-reporting bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- all maintain marketing lists that may contain your information. Contact the agencies to remove your name from the lists. You also should add your name to the name-deletion lists of the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service used by banks and other marketers. Removing your name from these lists reduces the number of pre-approved credit offers you receive.

    5. Watch what you carry in your wallet
    Do not keep your Social Security card in your wallet or carry extra credit cards or other important identity documents except when needed. These documents can give thieves ready access to your accounts.

    6. Keep duplicate records
    Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Copy both sides of your license and credit cards so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is stolen.

    7. Mail payments from a safe location
    Do not mail bill payments and checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox and washed clean in chemicals. Take them to the post office.

    8. Monitor your Social Security activity
    Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits statement once a year to check for fraud.

    9. Monitor your credit-card activity
    Carefully examine your credit-card statements for fraudulent charges before paying them. If you don't need or use department-store or bank-issued credit cards, close the accounts.

    10. Know who you are talking to
    Never give your credit-card number or personal information over the phone unless you have initiated the call and trust that business.
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