Put an end to cell-phone spam

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from PCWorld.com. For more coverage, visit PC World’s smart phone topic center.

It’s a sad fact that most of us are exposed to an endless flood of unsolicited messages from purported international dignitaries, dubious pharmaceutical salespeople, and pornographers—a deluge that invades our PCs each day. To make matters worse, spam is now infiltrating the mobile phone, too, where it not only wastes your time but also costs you money. Text messages consume your precious data allowance, and sales calls eat away your valuable voice minutes.

The good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. Follow these tips, and you’ll eliminate spam from your phone. Whether you get uninvited text messages, e-mail spam on your smart phone, or even sales calls, you can stop all forms of cellular spam by taking these easy steps.

Block text-message spam

Some people go years without ever receiving text-message spam, while others are bothered frequently. Though mobile spam is usually against the law, sales pitches might come to you legally as a result of your buying something on your phone. Illegal messages might appear because a spammer guessed your phone number. And since mobile phone companies allow PCs to send you text messages at a certain e-mail address, often your_phone_number@your_phone_company.com, spammers need only make an educated guess to come up with thousands of valid addresses.

You can disable or modify your phone’s e-mail address to block unwanted messages, while still permitting texts from other phones. Text-message blocking methods vary from carrier to carrier, but usually you can find helpful tools on your carrier’s Web site. For example, with AT&T, sign in to mymessages.wireless.att.com instead of the main billing site. Click the two check boxes to block MMS (multimedia message service) and text messages sent through e-mail.

Additionally, most carriers let you create an alias for your phone’s e-mail address, so you can use something other than your phone number. Changing your address will help thwart most text spam that could come from someone guessing or knowing your phone number. With AT&T, choose the drop-down menu to block messages, and then click Message Options to configure your new e-mail address. Click Submit to save the changes.

The above examples are specific to AT&T’s wireless service, but the same features are available to Verizon Wireless customers at text.vzw.com, to Sprint customers at sso.sprintpcs.com, and to T-Mobile customers at my.t-mobile.com.

Note that these actions will also block text messages from airlines or other companies you may want to hear from. Be sure to give those companies your updated address, or add their domains to the Allowed list through your carrier’s spam-control interface.

Stop e-mail spam from reaching your smart phone

Unlike PC-based e-mail clients such as Microsoft Outlook, most mobile e-mail clients have no way to identify and filter spam on their own. Using a Web-based filter to sort out messages before they even reach your cell phone’s mail client is a great way to reduce the flow of spam.

Activate the settings through your e-mail host, usually your ISP or Web mail service. With Yahoo Mail, for example, first sign in to the Web mail site through mail.yahoo.com. Click the Options link in the upper right. Click Spam Protection to verify that Yahoo is filtering messages, and click Turn SpamGuard ON if it isn’t already enabled. Other Web mail services, such as Gmail, always leave spam filtering active at the server.

If you receive e-mail through a Web host (your address looks like your_name@your_domain.com), visit the host’s control panel or setup area. The specific steps may vary; contact your tech support if you need help.

In my case, I started with my host’s bundled SpamAssassin instead of adding a paid alternative. I clicked the button to enable the server-side filter, and I also enabled the Spam Box option to deliver marked mail to an alternate folder. That way I can occasionally sift through those messages to identify any false positives, but they’re not clogging my iPhone’s e-mail inbox.

Coupled with an IMAP account, which primarily stores mail on a server instead of in a client, Spam Box saves me from downloading those messages onto my phone, though I still could do so if I wished. If you have e-mail through work, your IT department likely already uses a server-side filter similar to Spam Box; check with your IT manager if you’re unsure.

Other actions can prevent junk mail from reaching your phone without involving a filter. Spammers often need your contact information to get in touch, so protect your address. When registering with a bank, cable provider, or other company, scrutinize the forms for opt-out or opt-in mailing lists to keep your address free from solicitations.

Never post your personal e-mail address online, such as in a forum; spammers can find it there to add you to lists. Even for buying things online, consider setting up a secondary e-mail address to keep your main account clean. Additionally, you could create an account exclusively for your mobile phone and be even more restrictive in sharing it than you are with your main account.

Just as they do for text messages, spammers can hit your e-mail address by sending a huge volume of messages to randomly guessed addresses at major domains. Short addresses at common domains—such as google.com, yahoo.com, or earthlink.net—are easier to guess. To reduce your chance of being victimized, use eight characters or more, including numbers and punctuation, in your address. Most of all, when you do receive spam, don’t click any links inside (including any apparent “unsubscribe” links), or even load the images. Both can be ways to verify that your address is active, which will ensure that you get a whole lot more junk.

Block sales calls to your cell phone

Telemarketing is especially annoying when it reaches your mobile phone, costing you money to hear a sales pitch. Be cautious in giving your mobile number to companies, and especially be aware of opting in or out of a company sharing or selling that information.

If you do give out a mobile number, be sure to tell companies that it’s mobile. If someone calls with a pitch, ask them to take you off their list, and also mention that they have called a mobile number. It’s illegal for telemarketers to use autodialers to reach mobile numbers, so they’ll likely respond quickly if you let them know.

The National Do Not Call Registry can add another layer of protection, with caveats. The list is a database of numbers that telemarketers can’t call, but loopholes allow calls from political groups, surveys, and companies with which you’ve established a business relationship. Nearly the same restrictions on sales calls apply to mobile phones already; however, if you’ve begun to receive sales calls on your cell phone, adding your number to the Do Not Call Registry can be the easiest way to stop them.

[Zack Stern is a frequent contributor to PC World. The only thing he hates more than fingerprints on his iPhone are spam messages in his inbox.]

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