Everything that makes email so convenient—free messages, delivered in seconds—also makes it susceptible to spam. With only a list of addresses, professional spammers can merrily bombard their victims with as many messages as they like—and they have a host of automated tools to help them expand their volume and slip past filters.
It’s time to fight back against the deluge. Here are five strategies for banishing spam and decluttering your inbox for good.
1. Train your spam filter
These days, most email clients include some form of spam detection: Your provider will automatically red-flag messages that seem worthless or fraudulent and move them to a special folder where you can review them later. However, these filters will work a lot better if you train them by telling the client when it chose well or made a mistake. In other words, the spam filter isn’t a set, unchanging barrier—you can configure its settings and actions to improve its performance.
For instance, in the Gmail web app, every time you open an email, you’ll see a Report Spam button (it looks like an exclamation mark) at the top of the page. Click this when you encounter a message that managed to sneak past Google’s spam filters. On the other hand, if you check your Spam folder and find a genuinely useful email, open it and click the Not spam button at the top of the page.
In Outlook, you mark a message as spam by right-clicking it in your inbox and choosing Junk, then Block Sender, from the menu that pops up. When you’re browsing the Junk Email folder, restore a flagged message to your inbox by right-clicking it and choosing Junk, then Not Junk. To determine how aggressive the spam filter should be, visit the Home tab of the ribbon menu, click Junk, and select Junk E-mail Options.
Just about every email client will include options like these. Simply dig into the settings or review the buttons that appear on the page.
2. Remember to unsubscribe
Many items that we think of as “spam”—such as newsletters and emails about deals—do aim to make your life better. However, these well-intentioned messages add up, cluttering up your inbox until they become stressful. Rather than deleting them en masse, look for unsubscribe links to stop receiving emails from that source.
These links usually appear down at the bottom of an email—because most of the time, the sender doesn’t really want you to unsubscribe. If you do take time to hunt down these links, they often direct you to a page that asks you to confirm your decision. Once you do so, most sources will respect your wishes and remove you from their mailing lists. For Gmail users, this process is even easier, because if Gmail detects an unsubscribe link in the body text, it displays that link prominently at the top of the email. You can enjoy the same automated action in the Mail app on iOS—it will copy any unsubscribe link in the body text and display it at the top of the email, near the toolbar.
Another option is Unroll.me, a third-party service that scours your inbox for messages from mailing lists and gives you the option to unsubscribe in one click. If you’d like to keep receiving updates, but would prefer to see fewer of them, Unroll.me can condense all of these emails into a single daily message that’s easier to digest. The extension works with Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo and iCloud. Although it’s free, it makes money by collecting anonymized email data on shopping trends, so be aware of that if you plan to sign up.
3. Employ alternative email addresses
A lot of unwanted messages make their way into your inbox when you order a product or subscribe to a mailing list—and then the company automatically signs you up to receive unwanted marketing updates or shares your contact information with an advertiser. One workaround for this problem: Create a secondary email address you can use for some of these web activities, such as online shopping or hotel booking.
While another email address won’t stop spam from arriving, those unwanted messages will appear in a secondary email account rather than your primary one, keeping your main inbox free from clutter. If you already use Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, or Mail.com, then you can set up a decoy account for free, following the same process you used to establish your original account.
Depending on your email client, you may not need an entirely new account. Many clients will accept variations of your existing email address: For example, Gmail addresses ignore dots, so an email sent to “email@example.com” and an email sent to “firstname.lastname@example.org” will both arrive at the same inbox. Your emails will also come through if someone sends a message to your email address followed by a plus sign and extra words—so messages addressed to “email@example.com” and “firstname.lastname@example.org” will both land in your inbox. Why is this helpful? It means you can enter a variation on your current email address whenever you sign up for or buy something, and then create a Gmail filter to corral anything sent to that address in its own folder, separate from the main Primary tab. To create a filter in the web interface, click the Optionsbutton (it looks like a cog) on the top right, followed by Settings and then Filters and blocked addresses. Click Create a new filter, enter your tweaked address in the To field, and then decide what you want to do with these types of emails. You could mark them as read immediately, archive them, slap a shared label on them, or some combination of these actions.
4. Download third-party extensions
If a lot of spam slips through your email client’s spam filter, try adding a third-party app to supplement it. This type of service nabs messages as they travel between an email server (the cloud where messages are stored) and an email client (the display where you actually see your messages).