Lately, I’ve gotten more and more emails sent to my Gmail inbox folder with key phrases such as “confirmation receipt” (for something I never bought), “you’ve been chosen,” and “free.” While those words don’t signify a spam email 100% of the time, let’s be honest: They usually do. My luck isn’t that great, you know?
As someone who typically likes a “clean” inbox with few to no notifications unopened, getting junk emails kind of annoys me, honestly. When they’re so obviously spam, why aren’t they going to that folder?
I’m not the only one who’s been noticing that, over the last year or two, spam filters seem to be catching fewer bad emails. Lots of people have posted on Reddit and Twitter about experiencing the same issue.
No matter how much I try to address this problem — from reporting emails as spam to blocking spammy email accounts — nothing is truly fixing it. I’m obsessed with Gmail and Google Drive otherwise (literally, how are they free?!) so I asked experts what they think is going on and how to handle this predicament effectively.
How To Identify A Spam Email
First, let’s talk about what to spot. Many spam emails are glaringly obvious. For example, I’m never touching an email that asks for my bank account number or says I can “meet hot singles in my area.”
But again, spammers are learning what we’re learning, too. Some other signs to look for, according to the experts below, include:
- An email from someone who says they work for a certain company, but their email address isn’t connected to that company’s website (for example, it ends with “@gmail.com” instead of “@huffpost.com”)
- An email from someone claiming to be an attorney who has the will of a wealthy individual who recently died
- Urgent language, such as “act now,” “urgent action required,” “account suspension,” “final notice,” and “limited time offer”
- Unfamiliar-looking attachments
- Poor grammar and misspellings
- All capital letters
- Overusing emoji, especially in the subject line
- Emails involving sex, money and personal identification information.
Do We Blame Google For Not Doing Enough, Or Spammers For Being One Step Ahead?
It’s easy to blame Google sometimes — after all, it’s a huge corporation — but at the same time, experts say we can’t ignore how savvy spammers are. “Google and spammers kind of have a Tom and Jerry relationship,” said Chris Zacher, an SEO strategist at Intergrowth. “Every time Google upgrades the machine learning applications that filter our emails, spammers figure out new ways to get around their parameters.”
One way spammers do this is through a technique called “email warming,” which basically means making an email platform think the address is reputable. “This involved marking their email as important/not spam from multiple recipients before even starting to send out emails on the actual target lists,” explained Shubham Bajaj, founder of Netsurge Technologies, an SEO-focused digital marketing agency.
Not only do spammers play smart, they also play hard. Noticing more spam emails can also be a sign that, well, spammers are sending out more emails. “If there is a sudden surge in the overall volume of spam emails being sent, it can be more challenging for spam filters to catch every malicious message, resulting in more spam reaching users’ inboxes,” said Alex Rodriguez, an information security analyst at MorganFranklin Consulting.
With as many spam emails as you may see in your inbox, there are many more you don’t see, believe it or not. “We’ve built a strong foundation and constantly improve our safety systems based on the latest attack patterns, protecting Gmail users from nearly 15 billion unwanted messages a day,” said Ross Richendrfer, head of security and privacy PR at Google.
What To Do With A Spam Email
The main question is whether to unsubscribe, block, report or ignore the email. What’s the best way to A) stop receiving these emails while B) not getting any viruses?
The most crucial tip: Beware any links in the email’s body, such as an “unsubscribe” button, “as that probably requires you to click a link that will lead you to the sender’s email, which could lead to malware and all sorts of other problems,” Zacher said.
Additionally, “some spammers use the unsubscribe option to confirm your email is active,” added Tyler Moffit, a senior security analyst at OpenText Cybersecurity, which could encourage them to send you more emails.
On that note, when you block an email address or report it as spam, make sure you click the buttons associated with Gmail, not the particular email. One way to do this is by clicking the three dots in the upper right-hand corner, then clicking the Block or Report buttons.
Reporting spam helps everyone. “This way, Gmail can automatically mark similar messages as spam and stop more of them from reaching people’s inboxes,” explained Kevin Lee, vice president of trust and safety at Sift. “Gmail also allows you to report a message as ‘spam’ or ‘phishing.’”
Otherwise, simply ignoring the email is your safest bet.
Treat Unwanted Emails Differently Than Malicious Spam
Before you do any clicking, though, it’s important to differentiate a malicious spam email (aka “phishing,” more specifically) from another annoying promotion from a business you gave your email to years ago. When you mark valid promotional emails as spam, no matter how unwanted they are, it can mess with the spam filter. “Sometimes, users may inadvertently train the spam filters incorrectly by making legitimate emails as spam or not marking actual spam messages,” Rodriguez said. “This can cause the filters to become less effective over time.”
To identify a malicious spam email, look for the signs listed above (unknown senders, suspicious content, awkward email addresses, etc.). Otherwise, using the unsubscribe button is probably safe. “If you recognize the sender and they are a reputable company or organization, you can safely use the ‘unsubscribe’ link provided in the email,” Rodriguez added. “Legitimate senders are required to comply with anti-spam laws and should honor your request to unsubscribe.”
You can also set Gmail filters so emails from businesses go to a certain folder. “If those emails don’t automatically go to the Promotions folder, you can set up a filter to make sure they’re sent there, or you can even create a label specifically for that brand’s emails and filter them out that way,” Zacher said. (More on how to do this below!)
Other Ways To Reduce The Amount Of Spam In Your Inbox
Want to be extra proactive about getting those low-key dangerous (and obnoxious) emails out of your inbox? Here’s what to do and how to do it:
Set up filters.
On a larger scale, you can set up filters in your Gmail. While this isn’t a cure-all — spammers can always create new emails and keywords — it’s a start.
To create a filter:
- Click the icon at the right of the search bar in Gmail. (When you hover over it, it should read “Show search options.”)
- Type in the “trouble words” you keep seeing in your spam emails, or the email addresses they’re coming from.
- Click “Create filter.”
- Click the box that indicates what you want to happen to those emails, whether that’s archiving them, deleting them, categorizing them under “Promotions,” etc.
- Click the blue “Create filter” button at the bottom right.
Both Bajaj and Moffitt noted this can be tedious and not as effective as reporting the emails, however.
Use other email addresses.
If you have to advertise your email for some reason (don’t share it more than you have to!) or sign up for a bunch of newsletters, coupon emails, promotions, etc., having a specific email outside of your main one can be a good idea, according to Rodriguez.
If you’re especially unsure about something before signing up, you can even give a disposable address. “For one-time use or when signing up for potentially risky services, use a disposable email address from a service like Mailnator or 10 Minute Mail,” he suggested.
Stay educated (and keep others informed, too).
While being able to identify a spam email won’t directly decrease the amount you receive, knowing the latest scheme to look for never hurts. No matter how hard Google works, spam will probably always be an issue.
“Education, both for oneself and those around us, is of paramount importance … [it] can help minimize the effectiveness of these spam emails,” Rodriguez said.
What The Future Of Spam Might Entail
At the moment, something to pay attention to is ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence systems scammers may use, Rodriguez continued. Using AI could lower the number of typos from spammers, for example, and increase sophistication overall.
At the same time, those programs can be used for good. “As spammers harness AI to create sophisticated spam emails, developers and security experts will also utilize AI to bolster their defenses,” Rodriguez said.
As we spend more time online and see more technological advancements, Lee added, fraud will continue to happen, perhaps even increasingly so. What’s scary (but might also help you feel better) is that if you’ve ever fallen prey to one of these scams, you’re not alone.
Lee emphasized that it’s important for users to be “vigilant and take their own precautions when confronted with suspicious emails.”
There’s only so much you can do from your end, but there’s hope, according to Moffitt. “It is hard to predict how effective any solutions would be, but I wouldn’t count Google out on innovation.”
Richendrfer said reported spam has decreased by over 45% since late 2022 due to Google’s work. “To combat these efforts, we have a dedicated team of Googlers who work around the clock on this, constantly finding ways to improve our spam protections to defend users,” he said.
So, if you’ve been getting lots of spam lately, it’s safe to assume the problem won’t be this major forever. Until then, keep on reporting those pesky messages.