How to Keep Scammers From Getting Your Email Address
Avoid Address Scraping, Bulk Mail Attacks, and Other Scams
Have you been receiving emails saying that you have won millions of dollars from a Heineken lottery or because Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or some other celebrity wants to get rid of that cash burning holes in their pockets? How do scammers get hold of your personal email address to send you lottery and sweepstakes scams? Does it mean that sweepstakes you're entering are selling your information?
Not necessarily. Any email address you have is likely to receive some spam, whether you use it to enter sweepstakes or not. Here are some of the top methods that scammers and spammers use to find you and how to make it harder for them to add your email address to their lists.
Scammers Scrape Email Addresses from the Web
If your email address is publicly displayed in a forum signature, in a comment on a blog, in a winner's list, on social media or anywhere else that's accessible via an internet search, scammers can find it. They use programs to comb through the internet and harvest email addresses en masse.
One of the things scammers search for when they scrape email addresses is the @ symbol, since all email addresses have a format like email@example.com.
To protect yourself, avoid leaving your full email address anywhere on the net. Don't use your email address as a username for forums or website logins.
If you need to share your address online, make it difficult for programs to read by disguising it so it's easy for humans to understand but difficult for computers.
For example, you could write username at emailhost.com to avoid using the @ symbol. Or you could use an image of your email address instead of text, since images are much harder to search.
For some more ideas, check out Make Tech Easier's article on avoiding email harvesting.
Scammers Send Spam to Random Email Addresses
Sweepstakes scam emails cost nearly nothing to send, so scammers can afford to send emails to thousands upon thousands of random email addresses, hoping that someone will receive and respond to them.
To do this, the scammers start with a popular email service like Gmail or AOL and then generate massive lists of common words and names.
For example, the scammers might send emails to the top 100 most popular names and each birth year for people between the ages of 18 and 90. If your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you'll get one of these emails.
To avoid this kind of spam, you can try to use an email address that's difficult to guess.
Another option is to ignore the spam you receive so that the scammers have no proof that the address is active. That won't stop you from receiving the first email, but it will prevent you from being added to lists of active targets.
Spammers Create Fake Sweepstakes Sites to Harvest Data
One easy way for scammers to get their hands on your personal information is to convince you to hand it over to them by creating a fake sweepstakes site.
The scammers might even give away a small prize, but their primary goal is to harvest your personal information and use it to scam you.
How can you avoid this kind of trap? Learn how to recognize legitimate sweepstakes before you enter by doing some research into the company offering the giveaway.
Keep an eye out for red flags like websites that look cheap, misspellings and poor grammar, and sketchy details about the giveaway.
You should also be familiar with how much information to share on entry forms so that you don't hand over more information than is necessary to enter a giveaway.
Spammers Buy Email Lists from Sweepstakes Sites
Some companies sponsor legitimate giveaways but use the information they receive when you enter as an additional source of revenue by selling the email lists they receive.
By buying the email lists, scammers get access to your email address and can flood you with spam.
They Also Buy Email Lists from Other Sources
While sweepstakes scammers love to get their hands on lists of people who enter sweepstakes, they will also be perfectly happy to take the chance that someone who doesn't enter sweepstakes might respond to their scam.
In fact, those people might be less savvy about the warning signs of sweepstakes scams, making them easier targets. So scammers might buy email lists from any type of company, not just sweepstakes.
Furthermore, you should use a separate sweepstakes email when entering contests, so that you'll know that any win notifications that come to your other email addresses are not legitimate.
Scammers Hack into Online Databases
Some sweepstakes scammers get their email lists by hacking into online databases that have inadequate security to protect your information. This is a difficult, expensive, and high-risk method for hackers to get email addresses compared to any of the other methods listed here, but it happens.
To protect yourself, check the privacy policies of the websites you use to ensure that personal data is stored securely, and that your information is not kept for longer than is necessary.
You can use a leaked email database like HaveIBeenPwned to see whether your email address has been stolen. If so, start using a new email address... and change all of the passwords of your affected accounts.