Over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on, I began to notice something happening to my Gmail account inbox — a phenomenon attributable to marketers who apparently felt an even greater frenzy to get their messages out, while also perhaps feeling like they had a more captive audience than ever thanks to work-from-home situations. Well, I may be more tied to my email than probably at any point thus far in my working life because of the situation now, but that doesn’t mean I have passively resigned myself to the flood of unwanted spam and cold emails that have poured into my Gmail account and continue to do so. Signing me up for and subscribing me to various email lists is particularly annoying. Needless to say, I have been marking messages as spam with wild, untamed abandon over these past many months, and my threshold of tolerance for whether or not I mark a message as spam within Gmail is continuing to shrink.

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Having said all that, I recently learned a bit of a Gmail hack that will give you some insight into which companies are handing over your data, like your email address, to third parties that go on to start spamming you with messages. This won’t immediately put a stop to the spam that’s clogging up your Gmail inbox, but it’s a start — and you’ll still be able to take some targeted action afterwards. Here’s what you need to do:

The next time you have to leave your email with a company, such as when you buy a product and you get those nagging prompts that ask you to leave your email and create an account, what you’re going to do is type your email address in a slightly different way than normal. So that, when you start getting spam sent to this slightly-off email address, you’ll be able to pinpoint which company is handing out your data willy-nilly.

Instead of inputting your email address as normal, add a plus symbol (+) as well as some kind of unique identifier after your name — but before the @ symbol. Which would turn this email (johndoe@gmail.com) into something like:

  • johndoe+instagram@gmail.com

I slotted in “instagram” after the plus sign, for two reasons. One, Gmail ignores anything after the plus sign in an email, while still delivering it to “johndoe” in this case. Two, I chose “instagram” in the example email address above, because the ideal thing to do is to sort of “mark” these emails with the apps and services you want to flag for scrutiny. If anything came to your Gmail account marked with that specific address in the “To:” field, for example, it would let you know the sender got your address from Instagram.

You can put little twists on this, to vary up the faux email addresses you leave, in an attempt to figure out who’s giving out your address. This is sort of like what celebrities do, by the way, when they “leak” different gossip to their friends, and then they sit back and watch to see which version of it gets leaked, in turn, to the tabloids. Instead of a plus sign as we used above, you can also drop a period into your Gmail address — this is because Gmail ignores periods when it delivers mail, meaning messages sent to johndoe@gmail.com and john.doe@gmail.com will go to the same recipient.

Once you’ve gotten adept at “marking” all these email addresses, unfortunately, your options for what to do when the spam starts rolling in are still slim. If you live in the US, you can try reporting this to the FTC. European Union residents, you’ll file your complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. You could also go the tried-and-true route of naming and shaming these companies on social media — who knows, enough tweets, and anything could happen. But, again, this method above at least lets you know who the offending party or parties are, and that’s a start.

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Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.