(Part 1 of a three-part series. See Parts 2 and 3.)

A “satanic” force is in your midst–do you know how to protect yourself against this force that secretly monitors actions and can literally ruin your business and your finances?

I recently heard someone describe their computer as a “satanic” machine that can ruin your business, give crooks access to your bank accounts, dupe you into doing stupid or embarrassing things, and make you sick because your infected computer uses your name to send out their pornographic and virus laden e-mails to your mailing list. Worse yet are virus programs that grab your e-mail address from someone else’s infected computer and then use your e-mail address as an alias to broadcast more spam or more viruses. You can tell when this has occurred because you will receive “bounce-backs” from the thief using your address to hide their illegitimate actions. While there is nothing you can do about someone else’s infected computer, you can keep spammers and Internet identity thieves at bay by doing the following:

1. Protect your e-mail address.

Never use an e-mail address at one of the big ISP or free e-mail companies as your “primary” address; i.e. yourname@aol.com, yourname@msn.com, yourname@earthlink.net, yourname@yahoo.com, etc. No matter what you do, you will receive tons of junk mail. Instead, create an e-mail address with a minimum of 12 characters that include both numbers and letters. For example, 436JMQ567Jones##@aol.com. To create an address you can remember, use a combination of old addresses, phone numbers, license plates, or other numbers and letters that are easy for you to remember. I currently have two addresses I am using and receive 0 pieces of spam at those two addresses. Use this as your underlying address and never post it anywhere public.

2. Your public address.

Real estate professionals need an easy to remember e-mail address. We also need to be able to post our contact address on our Web sites and other public places that are subject to receiving spam. The challenge is what is known as spidering search engines. Legitimate companies such as Google, Overture and MSN use these tools to help people locate information on the Web. Sadly, professional spammers use the same technology.

There are two main strategies for coping with this issue. First, use the highest level of spam protection available either through your ISP or spam blocking software. This requires anyone who sends you an e-mail for the first time to copy a code on to their computer before they can contact you. This will reduce your spam to almost zero. Because most people find this annoying, it may also reduce how many legitimate leads contact you.

The better strategy is post your e-mail address within a graphic on your Web site. In other words, you will no longer have a link that pastes directly into the visitors e-mail address line. Instead, visitors will have to type the address into their e-mail program because the address is embedded in a logo, picture or other graphic on your site. Although it requires an extra step for your Web visitors, the reduction in the spam, viruses and worms you receive may well be worth it.

3. Don’t use free e-mail services.

Just weeks ago, Google announced its new e-mail (G-mail) service. Guess what, its computers are going to read your e-mail and display ads to both you and your recipients based upon the content of what you send. This also creates a “paper trail” it can sell to outside vendors. This is a frightening development in terms of protecting your client base, as well as maintaining your personal confidentiality.

4. Use aliases.

Have a separate alias address you use for newsletters, purchases on the Internet, etc. This address forwards to your underlying address that you never give out. If you start receiving spam at one of these addresses, simply create a new address and forward it to your same underlying e-mail address.

5. Turn off your autoresponders!

This is my virtual assistant’s pet peeve. Every time we send out a newsletter, we get about 20 percent of our list sending us messages like these:

“I’m away from the office showing property and will contact you when I return” or “I’m on vacation until the 30th. Please contact me after that date.”

The challenge is you are now replying to every spammer who contacts you and telling them, “Here is my legitimate e-mail address–feel free to use it!”

When spammers identify legitimate e-mail addresses, they sell them to other spammers. The result is a doubling or tripling of the spam you already receive.

6. Don’t unsubscribe!

Never “unsubscribe” from junk mail unless you legitimately subscribed to the service. For regular everyday spam, unsubscribing just confirms for the spammer that your e-mail address is legitimate and your address will be sold to other spammers.

7. Don’t respond to e-mails that tell you to reconfirm your subscription or other data.

If you receive a request from what appears to be a legitimate service provider, contact them by telephone or go to your browser and type in the company’s name. Do not use the link in the e-mail since this can be a cleverly designed copy that looks like the real company’s Web site.

If you think these are problems, look for next Friday’s RealClues, “Protecting Your Computer and Your Business Part 2: “Big brother is spying on you!”

Bernice Ross is an owner of Realestatecoach.com and can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com.

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