How to Protect Your Email Address from Spam and Scams

Top Methods Scammers Use to Find Email Addresses - And How to Avoid Them

Every day, I receive emails claiming that I've won millions of dollars from a Heineken lottery or because Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or some other celebrity wants to get rid of some of that cash burning holes in their pockets.

How do scammers get hold of my personal email address to send me lottery and sweepstakes scams? Does it mean that sweepstakes I'm entering are selling my information?

Not necessarily. If you have any email address, it will probably receive spam eventually, whether you use it to enter sweepstakes or not. Here are some of the top methods that scammers and spammers use to find you.

'Scraping' Email Addresses from the Web

Image of a shadowy hand stealing an at symbol.
Don't let your email address be targeted by scams. Image (c) EVERSOFINE / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

If your email address is publicly displayed in a signature, in a comment on a public forum, on a winner's list, or anywhere else that is accessible by search, scammers can find it. They use programs to comb through the internet and harvest email addresses en masse.

To protect yourself, avoid leaving your full email address anywhere on the net. Don't use your email address as a username for a forum or website.

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.

Sending Scams to Random Email Addresses

Sweepstakes scam emails cost nearly nothing to send. That means that criminals can afford to send blanket emails to random email addresses and hope that someone will receive them.

To do this, the scammers start with a popular email service - say Hotmail, Yahoo, or AOL - and then generate massive lists by combining common words and names.

For example, the scammers might send mails 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, you'll get one of these mails.

It's difficult to avoid this method of harvesting emails. The best thing to do is not to respond to these mails, so that the scammers don't get confirmation that the address is actively used.

Harvesting Data from Fake Sweepstakes Sites

Scammers like to target people who are most likely to fall for their sweepstakes scams. This means that if they can get their hands on email addresses and other personal information from people who actually enter sweepstakes, they might have a bit more success with their scams.

One method that they use to get this information is by setting up a fake sweepstakes site. They might even give away a small prize, but their primary goal is to harvest your personal information and use it to contact you with scams.

How can you avoid this kind of trap? Learn how to recognize legitimate sweepstakes before you enter. You should also review how much information to share on entry forms.

Buying Email Lists from Sweepstakes Sites

It's possible that a company could hold a legitimate giveaway and then decide to make some extra money by selling the personal information that it collected.

In that way, scammers could easily get hold of a large list of sweepstakes entrants without having to take on the time or expense of running their own sweepstakes.

To protect yourself from having your information sold to other companies and scammers, check out the privacy policy of the sweepstakes that you enter. If the privacy policy is missing, untrustworthy, or it says that your information might be resold, do not enter the sweepstakes.

Find out more about what to look for in a good privacy policy.

Buying 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 scams, making them easier targets. So scammers might buy email lists from any type of company, not just sweepstakes.

For this reason, you should read the privacy policy of any site that collects personal information.

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.

Hacking 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 dangerous, expensive, and high-risk method for hackers to get email addresses compared to any of the other methods listed here, but it happens in some cases.

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.

It's also a good idea to follow safe password practices and use a password manager (such as Roboform) to reduce the damage that will occur if your information is hacked.

Most Email Addresses Will Eventually Receive Sweepstakes Scams

Following these tips can prevent you from being overwhelmed with sweepstakes scams, but remember that it might not be possible to avoid scam emails altogether. Learning to recognize the warning signs of a scam will help you avoid any problems from those mails that do sneak through.