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Email defense

January 1, 2017

shield

Photo: Dennis Jarvis (CC)

Email is my favorite way to communicate, though I realize it’s out of fashion for many people. Some prefer the instant access of group chat apps such as Slack, or simply picking up the phone. And we have plenty of alternatives, including messaging apps (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger), texting and ye olde Snail Mail (which I send when I want to complain about customer service or product defects — it’s fairly effective).

Using email can be a real pain, as users fight to keep their Inboxes tamed while having time to, you know, work. Not to mention all the security problems: phishing and other scams, hacked services, viruses, misrouted messages.

I’ve seen friends and clients struggle with email. It’s costing them time, customers and sanity — but it doesn’t have to be that way. They can win the email war in a few steps.

Let’s look at some options for email defense. These are tactics I use every day in keeping my Inbox clean and my goals on track.

1. I had to install a spam filter. Because I have public email addresses and multiple domain names, spammers spoof them to send out their junk. So I receive upwards of about 200 spam emails a day. This was driving me up the wall, trying to find a handful of legitimate messages in a sea of Viagra ads and unsafe links.

Apple’s Mail.app for my laptop wasn’t cutting it.

I found SpamSieve, a plugin that has saved my bacon. It filters out spam during my mail checks, and learns with each pass. I can train it for false positives and negatives. It’s only $30 and completely worth it.

2. Many, many years ago, I learned how to set rules for each email app I used. Because so much of my email is recurring, I wanted it to sort itself into neat piles: bills, friends, newsletters, media releases, urgent notices and so on.

It’s still a work in progress. But at least I’m not wasting time looking through all my emails in one endless list.

Filter emails by sender, by recipient email address (handy when I use different addresses for different purposes) and subject. Mark them by label or color, change them to already read, or trigger a sound for important messages.

It takes about an hour to set up filtering rules and testing them. They’ll save hours upon hours with each incoming message.

3. Many users do an annual cleanse by unsubscribing from old newsletters, promotional offers and any email blast that have outlived their usefulness. Doing it once a day for a week can drastically cut down on overall volume all year long.

I finally made myself do it in December, and having that cleaner Inbox made it worthwhile.

For those who need a shortcut, try Unroll.Me, a free service that works on major platforms including Gmail and Outlook.com (but sadly, not my humble Apple Mail). Not only does it offer mass unsubscribing, it also takes the remaining newsletters and puts them into one digest.

No more excuses: Drop the emails (even my newsletter, if need be) no longer needed or read.

4. Passwords remain one of our most vulnerable security areas. We use bad passwords (too common, too short, too simple). We leave them lying around. We leave them unchanged.

This makes little sense, since we rarely input our email passwords while checking them from our computers at home and work and our phones.

Email providers are making it too easy for the hackers: Many set a maximum limit of password characters — it’s crazy to have an eight-character password nowadays guarding our email accounts.

Let’s change our passwords today, using a mix of letters and numbers and punctuation. Try 20 to 30 characters for best security. (And use a password manager to track those new longer passwords: Try KeePassX for Mac desktops and MiniKeePass for iOS devices. MakeUseOf has more on this free solution.)

5. Perhaps the oldest rule of all applies even more in this age of social media and Internet shaming. If we wouldn’t want to see something on the front page of NYTimes.com, we shouldn’t send it in an email.

Email, for the most part, is not secure in its travels from server to server. We like to think of it as a direct transmission from our Outbox to the recipient’s Inbox, but emails travel a circuitous route over many vulnerable access points. While the likelihood that any one person’s single email message could be intercepted en route, the reality is that our systems are vulnerable at all points along the way, beyond our own devices.

Keeping sensitive info out of email may not be a practical solution. We must each weigh the benefits (convenience, compatibility, speed) and the risks of using email in each instance of transmitting that data.

Using these five steps can greatly enhance our email usage by keeping our accounts safe and secure, clean and efficient. Let’s make the most of our email through good maintenance.

Next week: Playing email offense

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