How do spammers get your email? You give it to them. Not directly, no – you sign up for an app or service and happily hand over your email to verify your new account, then that app or service sells your email address to marketers who now know what kind of apps and services you want like.
It’s a shady tactic that is symptomatic of the current era of big data, and it may even be illegal in some jurisdictions. But companies get away with it because they’re not the ones to spam you directly, so you don’t normally have a way of knowing which service is the one that sold your data.
See who is selling your data
The next time you sign up for an account with an app or website, add a + symbol and a unique identifier after your username, but before the @ symbol. So this standard email format:
… would become something like:
Ideally, use the name of the app to make it easier for you to find the culprit. If you sign up for a TikTok account with email@example.com and then you get a lot of spam emails with that specific recipient address, you know it was TikTok who sold your email address ̵
The reason this works is because Gmail ignores everything after one + log in to any email address, but still deliver the emails. So check that Sender field on your next spam message.
You may run into an issue where the service you are signing up for is not allowing you to use a + symbol in the email field. When that happens, you can use another Gmail trick: add a period somewhere in your username. For example:
… can be entered as follows when signing up for one website:
… then as follows when signing up for another website:
As with the + symbol Gmail outright ignores all periods in usernames and delivers the email as if they weren’t there. You will need to remember what position the period was in when you signed up for each service, and there are a limited number of combinations. However, keep in mind that you can use multiple periods.
What to do if you find out who sold your data
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to put an end to shady data sales by catching a company in the act – there’s just no adequate system to punish policy violators, if there’s even a policy against it in your jurisdiction in the first place. But at least you can do your bit.
You can report privacy violations to the FTC if you live in the US. If you are in the European Union, you can file a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. Don’t expect any action, but enough complaints can get the ball rolling.
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