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Issue #653: January 26 – Feb 1, 2020

Q: I imagine that you’ve covered this before and would appreciate a refresher on how to reduce “SPAM” calls and texts.  Many people received new phones this season and may also appreciate such tips.

– Kelly H.
Destin, Florida

A: Indeed I have covered techniques for dealing with SPAM e-mail in past issues.  Nevertheless, it’s such a pervasive problem, that it’s definitely worth covering again.  I don’t believe that I’ve ever covered how to reduce junk calls and texts.  I have a few tips for you there also.

SPAM.  What used to be a merely a potted meat food product, and then became a Monty Python skit, has now become the bane of modern communications.  Merely being in possession of a telephone number or e-mail address virtually guarantees you have been, are, or soon will be the target of its misuse by those bound and determined to get one over on you.  Some SPAM is relatively mild, coming in the form of ads for products or services.  Personally, as a rule, I actively avoid purchasing these products, no matter how tantalizing the ad might be, on the mere principle that the seller used SPAM methods to get their word out.  At the other end of the spectrum is truly dangerous SPAM.  This includes e-mails, texts, or phone calls that attempt to steal personal data, or trick you into handing it over voluntarily.

The number one defense against all of these threats is being able to recognize them in the first place.  This tends to be easier with calls and text messages, since legitimate ones tend to come from people already in your contact list.  Legitimate exceptions to that rule are calls and texts that you might get from such people as delivery drivers, or other people from whom you’re actually expecting contact.  The best way to handle these is to ignore ones you aren’t expecting or don’t recognize.  Don’t be tempted by messages that claim to be from banks, delivery companies, etc.  As I write this, in fact, warnings are going around about a phony message that pretends to be from FedEx, but is actually an attempted scam.

The Federal Trade Commission has implemented a “Do Not Call” registry for both cell phones and landlines.  Technically, companies are supposed to check this list, and bypass registered numbers.  The honest truth is that these are just about impossible to enforce, and so these registries are largely ignored by large-scale out-callers.  Our defense at the Geek House is to simply not answer if we don’t recognize the number.  Our cell phones have the ability to automatically reject calls from numbers that aren’t in the phone’s Contacts.  If the caller truly needs to reach us, they will leave a voicemail. 

There is a largely unknown setting in iOS (the operating system that powers iPhones) that can reduce SPAM text messages.  You can enable it by going into the phone’s settings app, and scrolling down until you find “Messages”.  Tap it. Scroll down again and you will find a switch that says “Filter Unknown Messages” and turn it on.  In your Messages app, you’ll now find that there are two tabs at the top of the screen.  One says “Contacts & SMS” and contains messages from contacts in your address book.  The other says “Unknown Senders” and has everything else.  In this configuration, when you receive messages from people not in your Contacts, you won’t be bothered with a notification.  The messages will silently filter into the “Unknown” list.  Like the “Spam” folder in your e-mail, you should periodically view these messages to see if anything got filtered that you actually want to see.

One quick word on SPAM e-mails:  Many people try to reduce SPAM by unsubscribing from them.  In all but the rarest of cases, doing so serves only to validate your e-mail address to the spammer.  They usually have no intention to stop sending SPAM.  The exception would be legitimate mailing lists that you intentionally opted-into at some point, such as online shopping sites and such.  Before opting-into any such list, you should review the associated Terms of Service to see if you’re agreeing that they are allowed to share (read: sell) your contact information with their “partners.”  If so, avoid them, or the chances are you’ll never get your e-mail address back.

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