Trace the Source of Junk Mail (and Spam)

Have you ever wondered how you got signed up for all the junk mail you receive? I’m talking about old fashioned junk mail delivered by the postal service. Oftentimes, it’s those magazine subscriptions and other services you voluntarily sign up for. They don’t tell you they’re going to sell your name and address to bulk mail services (or perhaps they tell you in the fifteen pages of unreadable legalese you have to accept in order to finalize a transaction). In addition to the annoyance of going through all the extra mail, delivering all that useless stuff is a real waste of paper and energy.

A few years ago my wife came up with a cute idea for tracking this stuff. Whenever you sign up for a new service, like a magazine subscription, in the customer name field, enter your real last name but a first name that indicates the company you’re doing business with. For example, when I lived in the New York area, my New York Times subscription was under the name “Nytimes Cohen”. Yesterday I received a piece of junk mail addressed to “Atlantic Cohen”, which tells me The Atlantic magazine sold me out.

I’ve extended this idea into the email/spam realm. We have a family domain (, which I use for my email address. I have setup a rule which forwards “marc at” to my current email account. This way I have one email address for my entire life. If I change my email provider, I simply adjust my forwarding rule. Here’s the tie-in with spam detection: I also have a default routing rule which says “anything at” should be routed to my main email account. So when I sign up for a new web service, I use a name that reflects the business providing the service. For example, my facebook account is setup with email address “facebook at”. It’s the same trick, applied to the email address instead of the name.

Neither of these tricks will stop the initial flow of junk mail but they can give you some insight into the source of the problem. And if it bothers you enough, you’ll know who to contact in order to put a stop to it.

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