Leave Me Alone!

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Sick of unwanted telemarketing, junk mail and spam? A few simple steps can slow the torrent to a trickle.

Unless you're a recluse, chances are you're bombarded daily with direct marketing pitches. Open up your email, and breathless offers for XXX action, cheap prescription drugs and miracle creams (as seen on Oprah!) beg for your attention. Your mailbox sags with credit-card offers, catalogs and coupons. A dinner wouldn't be complete without the phone ringing off the hook with telemarketing calls.

Wouldn't it be nice just to be left alone?

Companies spent a staggering $97.4 billion on direct marketing to consumers in 2003, according to the Direct Marketing Association, or DMA, an industry trade group with 5,000 members. Annoying you is big business. But there are ways you can fight back — without moving to a bungalow on a small private isle with no working phone lines, Internet cables or post office. A few simple steps can dramatically reduce the daily intrusions on your privacy.

Telemarketing Calls
This one is easy. If you haven't already signed up for the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) National Do Not Call Registry, do so. Immediately. The procedure takes less than a minute, and will eliminate the vast majority of bothersome calls coming into your home.

"It's like the introduction of penicillin in medicine," says Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, which offers a handy Web site dedicated to the fight against direct marketing. The service first took effect last October, and already, more than 57 million phone numbers have been registered. Companies that ignore the law are subject to fines.

Once you add your name to the database, it can take up to three months for your registration to take effect. You'll then be protected for five years from the date you registered. Mind you, not all telemarketers will be banned: Nonprofits, political organizations, survey companies and companies that you already have business relationships with (like your bank and credit-card providers) are still permitted to contact you.

Needless to say, the telemarketing industry isn't a big fan of the Do Not Call registry. But just last week the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed claims that the registry violates free speech. You can practically hear the collective sigh of relief from dinner tables across the country.

Direct Mail
For a lot of folks, direct mail isn't much of a nuisance. Browsing catalogs is kind of fun. And some of those credit-card offers can actually be good deals.

But if your name gets on too many lists, the avalanche of mail can be overwhelming. More than 70 billion pieces of commercial mail are sent each year -- more than half of which goes unopened, says Catlett. Those struggling with overwhelming debt surely don't appreciate the daily onslaught of credit-card solicitations. And envelopes screaming that a late spouse has a terrific chance of winning the sweepstakes are obviously unwelcome in most homes.

One way to reduce junk mail is to register for the DMA's Mail Preference Service, which allows you to opt-out from receiving mail from the Association's members. "We estimate that it's about 70% to 80% of the volume of mail," says Patricia Faley Kachura, vice president of ethics and consumer affairs at the DMA. As with the National Do Not Call Registry, pre-existing business relationships are immune. Even so, you should see a noticeable reduction in junk mail within four months of registering.

If you like getting the catalogs but are fed up with the endless stream of credit-card solicitations, a quick call to 888-5OPT-OUT will solve your problem. This is a service run by the credit bureaus, which normally sell names to credit-card companies and other financial institutions. Signing up will stop them from doing so.

Finally, you can also limit the amount of junk mail you receive simply by exercising caution before giving your address to anyone. When buying something from a catalog or other vendor that has access to your address (if, for example, you have something shipped from a store), always ask that your information not be sold to or shared with other companies, says Catlett. And beware those warranty cards that come in the packaging of many products. Filling them out is not necessary, and they generally don't improve or extend the warranty, he says. Instead, just keep a copy of your sales receipt so you have a record of when the item was purchased. You also should be wary of sweepstakes offers.

Fighting spam is no easy task. After all, here you're largely dealing with disreputable vendors who care nothing about maintaining positive relationships with their "customers." Spam is all about volume -- even a less than 1% response rate is considered a success, says Kachura. And unfortunately, while brilliant minds are dedicated to the cause of finding better ways to fight spam, the spammers "are constantly adapting," says Jeffrey Fox, senior projects editor at Consumer Reports magazine. "It's an arms race."

The federal government targeted spammers with its Can Spam law, which took effect on Jan. 1. But according to many experts, it's a big dud. "It's a really bad law," says Catlett, who jokes that the full name of the law is You Can Spam. "It not only failed to ban spam -- which is what most people wanted -- but it cancelled all stronger state laws," he says.

So what's included in the law? Among other things, it requires that unsolicited commercial email have a subject line that makes it clear that it's a commercial advertisement and accurately reflects the content of the email, says Kachura. There also must be a clear and honest "from" line, as well as a working return address (via email and a physical location) and a clear way for consumers to opt out from receiving future emails. Finally, if there's sexually explicit content, you need to click through to get there. (In other words, there should be no shockers when you first open up your email.)

Unfortunately, most reputable marketers were already following these guidelines, and most unreputable ones have chosen to ignore the new law. "The problem with Can Spam is that it doesn't make spam illegal," says John R. Levine, co-author of the new book "Fighting Spam for Dummies." It simply tries to regulate it. In addition, it's impossible for an individual to sue a spammer, unlike a sender of unsolicited junk faxes. (Internet service providers are suing the spammers; AOL and EarthLink filed lawsuits.) Needless to say, one step you might want to take is to write "a letter to your congressman reminding (him or her) that Can Spam is not the effective antispam bill that we need," says Levine.

Beyond that, a personal battle with spam should be a two-pronged approach, says Levine. The first step is to hide from it, and the next step is to try to filter it. Hiding from spammers is considered the easier of the two. Once a person is on spammers' lists, blocking it is tough.

To understand the best ways to take cover, you first need to understand how spammers get their addresses. One is based on something called a dictionary attack, wherein spammers use programs to fire off emails to likely addresses like jane1@yahoo, jane2@yahoo and so forth. One preventive strategy is to come up with an email address that's not easy to guess, says Levine. A long address with strange letter and number combinations should offer some protection. Even inserting a digit in an unlikely place or coming up with an address that doesn't include a common first name can help, says Consumer Reports' Fox.

One also should never post an email address on the Web, particularly on well-traveled sites, like the AOL member pages, says Fox. That's because spammers are constantly harvesting email addresses in these places. Those who must post their address online, or are buying something from a vendor they're unsure of, can always set up a disposable address. "It's perfectly possible to have multiple email addresses, particularly since Yahoo! and Hotmail and companies like those are perfectly willing to give you free email addresses," says Levine, who also recommends the Web site Spamcon.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting spam, for disposable addresses. The key is to use the account for as long as necessary and then shut it down.

When it comes to blocking spam, start with an ISP that has a good filter. America Online is one of the best, says Levine. The experts we spoke with were mixed about spam-blocking software. None could name a product that blocks all spam -- and several said they thought that paying for spam filers isn't worth the money. One can find reviews of these products at various Web sites, including Consumer Reports and Cnet.

So what about responding to spammers to ask to be taken off their lists? Some experts say that, contrary to popular wisdom, it's OK to reply. Reputable advertisers will accommodate people's wishes, while disreputable ones will simply ignore such requests. "Some people believe it's just going to make it worse, but in most cases nothing happens," say Catlett, since so many return addresses are fake, anyway.

One can always report spam to an ISP or the Federal Trade Commission. And consumers should report spam that includes illegal material -- such as child pornography, drugs or pyramid schemes. Generally speaking, reporting illicit spam won't prevent that sender from emailing you, but it does help regulators evaluate trends.

Finally, it pretty much goes without saying that you shouldn't actually buy something from a spammer. "I know people want these cheap ink-jet cartridges," quips Fox. "But, frankly, anyone who patronizes spammers has no right to complain.