How do I... Avoid e-mail spam using Outlook tools?

As more and more spam finds your Inbox, it's harder to find legitimate mail. Regrettably, at least from the recipients' point of view, it looks like spam is here to stay. You can't keep spammers from sending you e-mail, but you can make sure you don't ever see it. Susan Sales Harkins shows you how to use tools found in Microsoft Outlook to combat spam e-mail.

Nobody knows for sure how spam got its name, but we can all agree that we hate it. As more and more spam finds your Inbox, it's harder to find legitimate mail. Regrettably, at least from the recipients' point of view, it looks like spam is here to stay, but resistance does pay off. You can't keep spammers from sending you e-mail, but you can make sure you don't ever see it. You must take control of spam, because honestly, that's all any of us can hope for at this point.

Where appropriate, this article provides instructions for Microsoft Outlook 2003, but these spam-fighting tips aren't exclusive to Outlook. In addition, these tips are for individual users. Server administrators have more tools to choose from, including third-party filters, none of which I discuss in this article.

This blog post is also available in the PDF format in a TechRepublic download.

Start with Outlook's Junk E-mail folder

Outlook 2003 has a decent spam filter that downloads and filters spam into an existing folder named Junk E-mail. When the filter suspects a message is spam, Outlook downloads it directly into this folder instead of cluttering up your Inbox with it. Outlook enables this filter by default. If your filter is disabled, I recommend you turn it back on:

  • Choose Options from the Tools menu.
  • Click the Preferences tab if necessary
  • Click Junk E-mail in the e-mail section and deselect the first option, No Automatic Filtering, as shown in Figure A.
  • Click OK twice.

Figure A

Enable Outlook 2003's spam filter

This dialog box offers several options:

  • Select the Low option and you'll still see spam in your Inbox.
  • Choose High to see little to none.
  • Check the Safe Lists Only option for a strict filter that downloads mail only from addresses in your contacts list. This drastic setting will definitely eliminate spam from your Inbox, but it's too restrictive for most people.
  • Fight the temptation to check the option that deletes all spam because sometimes what Outlook thinks is spam isn't spam at all.
Note: Make sure you check your Junk e-mail folder frequently for false negatives -- messages that the filter incorrectly identifies as spam. When you find a message in Junk E-mail that isn't spam, right-click it and choose Mark As Not Junk from the resulting submenu, shown in Figure B. You can do the same with spam that makes it into your Inbox. Select the Add Sender To Blocked Senders List option and Outlook will automatically move the message to Junk E-mail.

Figure B

Let Outlook know when it makes a mistake

By default, Outlook considers everyone in your Contacts lists as safe. If you're using Microsoft Exchange Server, you can't automatically send messages from anyone in your organization to the Junk E-mail folder -- nice try.

Immobilize Web beacons

A Web beacon is a linked image that your e-mail client retrieves when you download the message. Spammers use this trick to save money and to track which e-mail addresses retrieve the image. The simple act of downloading your e-mail lets a spammer know that your e-mail address is alive and well. Congratulations -- you've won more spam!

Outlook 2003 doesn't download images by default. If you're currently downloading images, you can pull the plug on beacons as follows:

  • Choose Options from the Tools menu and then click the Security tab.
  • Click Change Automatic Download Settings in the Download Pictures section.
  • Check the Don't Download Pictures Or Other Content Automatically In HTML E-mail option, as shown in Figure C.
  • You might want to check the Permit Downloads In E-mail Messages From Senders And To Recipients Defined In The Safe Senders And Safe Recipients List Used By The Junk E-mail Filter <phew> option. If you receive HTML newsletters and the like, selecting this option will allow Outlook to download them into your Inbox (or any personal folder you select using a rule).
  • Similarly, you might want to check the Permit Downloads From The Web Sites In This Security Zone: Trusted Zone option.
  • Click OK twice.

Figure C

Block graphic files in e-mail messages

In truth, the jury's out on beacons. Not everyone agrees that they increase spam, but I don't see the point in finding out. A neat side benefit is that your e-mail will download quicker.

Be proactive

Fighting spam might mean a change of habits and showing a bit of restraint. The following list applies to anyone who spends anytime online, not just Outlook users:

  • Don't post your e-mail address on a Web site, a newsgroup, or any public forum. Spiders (special software that searches the Internet for e-mail addresses) are everywhere. If you must post your address, spell it out-for example, ssharkins at gmail dot com.
  • Don't respond to spam. Let me repeat myself just in case you don't understand: NEVER respond to spam. I know I'm wasting my time on this particular warning because if spam didn't work, spam wouldn't exist.
  • Don't try to unsubscribe from a spam "list." Most spam comes complete with a handy dandy, "If you don't want anymore mail from us, just click this button..." option. Don't click it! Doing so verifies that your address is alive and well and that a (probably) warm-blooded being is reading mail. They then sell your address to other spammers for a high price because they know you read your spam. Congratulations -- you've just won more spam!
  • Don't open attachments that come with spam.
  • Don't click hyperlinks in spam.
  • Don't post your personal e-mail address on your Web site (if you have one).
  • Don't add your e-mail address to online directories at sites such as Bigfoot, Yahoo, InfoSpace, and so on.
  • Don't sign online guest books.
  • Don't respond to spam with an irate message. I don't care how offended you are by the content, responding only verifies your e-mail. Congratulations -- you've just won more spam!
  • Don't enter your e-mail address at any Internet site until you read the site's privacy options. If you backtrack for any reason, be sure to check all those privacy options because most likely, the page will clear them -- as a convenience to you of course.

That last one's tricky because most of us use the Internet to shop, to research, and so on. Even when a site promises not to sell your information, it might. Go ahead and sign up for all those free samples, but be prepared for the spam avalanche. If you believe that someone has maliciously violated their own privacy agreement, report them to their host service provider.

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with spam is to use a free e-mail account for your Internet browsing and purchasing. Give your personal e-mail address to only the most trusted people, such as family, colleagues, and friends. Outlook doesn't care how many e-mail accounts you have. Use a rule to download incoming messages by sender into appropriate personal folders to keep all that mail organized and to reduce the risk of important messages going astray.

Most free e-mail account providers have intense spam filters that do a good job. Enable the filter and very little spam will make it into your Inbox. However, I recommend that you visit their site frequently to check your account's spam folder, just in case. My Gmail account filtered a response from a potential client into my spam folder. I didn't find it for days and just assumed the client wasn't interested. When I didn't respond, the client thought I wasn't interested.

Several companies provide free e-mail accounts these days. I use Gmail, but there are others, such as Yahoo and Hotmail. Consider using several free accounts. For instance, you might use one for technical newsletters, one for making purchases, one for signing up for free samples, and so on.

The down side to these free accounts is that the spammers will find it quicker than you can share it. Three days after signing up for Gmail, I had over 100 spam messages in my spam folder. On the average, I now receive around 100 a day, but Gmail's spam filter catches them all.

Spam be gone!

It would be nice if you could wave a magic wand, mutter a few words, and never receive spam again. That's just not going to happen. The simplest way to avoid spam is to close your door to it. That sounds simple enough, but you already know that it isn't. There are two things you can do fight the surge: First, let Outlook do its job and filter spam out of sight; second, don't spread your e-mail address all over the Internet.

Susan Sales Harkins is an independent consultant and the author of several articles and books on database technologies. Her most recent book is "Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express," with Mike Gunderloy, published by Sybex. Other collaborations with Mike Gunderloy are "Automating Microsoft Access 2003 with VBA," "Upgrader's Guide to Microsoft Office System 2003," "ICDL Exam Cram 2," and "Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Access 2003" all by Que. Currently, Susan volunteers as the Publications Director for Database Advisors at You can reach her at