The email harvesters (spambots) used by spammers scan your web pages looking for email addresses to add to their spam mailing lists. Obfuscating an address obscures or scrambles its characters, making it harder for a harvester to recognize. The most common method replaces characters with their numeric ASCII character code equivalents. Browsers automatically unobfuscate the address so that site visitors can read it. While this is a popular method to protect an email address, the harvester tests reported in this article show that newer harvesters now recognize many of these addresses.
Table of Contents
- How to obfuscate an email address
- Replace the “@” with a character code
- Replace the whole address with character codes
- Replace the address in a mailto link with URL character codes
- Use CSS to reverse a backwards email address
- Use a <bdo> tag to reverse a backwards email address
- Further reading
This article is part of a series on Effective methods to protect email addresses from spammers that compares and tests 50 ways to protect email addresses published on a web site.
How to obfuscate an email address
Publishing an email address on a web page enables site visitors to contact you, but it exposes your address to email harvesters (“spam robots” or “spambots”) that spammers use to scan your site for addresses. Obfuscating (also called “munging” or “encoding”) an address protects it by changing or rearranging the characters, making it harder for a harvester to recognize your address. And if harvesters can”t recognize your protected address, they won’t add it to mailing lists and you’ll get less spam.
The most common way to obfuscate an email address converts (encodes) its characters into numeric ASCII character codes. For example, 97 is the ASCII code for an “a”, 98 for a “b”, and so on. Browsers automatically convert these codes back into characters so that your protected address is readable by site visitors. But many spambots are left confused.
Below I discuss each of the most common ways to obfuscate an email address. After this list, I report the results of running obfuscated addresses past a collection of email harvesters to see which ways are effective at protecting your address, and which are not.
Replace the “@” with a character code
An easy way for harvesters to find an email address on a web page is to look for the “@” character. The text to the left and right of the “@” is the email address. Obfuscate this character by replacing it with its decimal ASCII character code: 64 (here”s a table of ASCII character codes). In HTML, this is written as “@” (a common typo is to forget the semi-colon after the number). If harvesters can’t find the “@”, they won’t find your protected email address.
You can use a hexadecimal code instead, and the obfuscated “@” becomes “@” (note the added “x” before the number).
Replace the whole address with character codes
If obfuscating the “@” is good, then obfuscating the entire email address may be better. So replace every character with its decimal equivalent:
You can use hexadecimal codes instead:
And you can mix decimal and hexadecimal codes in the same email address.
Andreas Neudecker’s Spam-me-not web page has a free converter that generates the character code version of an email address. A web search (try “email obfuscator”) will find many other converters ("obfuscators", "encoders", "mungers"), but Neudecker’s works well and supports both decimal and hexadecimal codes.
If you want a “mailto” link that points to your email address, you”ll need to protect the visible address and the address inside the link”s “href”. If either one is left unprotected, spambots will find the address and you”ll get spam. Neudecker”s web page will generate the “mailto” link too.
Replace the address in a mailto link with URL character codes
URLs in the “href” of a link can be encoded in another way. Instead of writing the character’s ASCII number in the HTML style, like “@”, use the URL style that adds a “%” before the number, like “%64” (and no semi-colon at the end).
The Mysterious Ways web site design company’s Protect email addresses web page has a free converter that generates obfuscated email links like this. A web search will find other similar obfuscated URL encoders.
Use CSS to reverse a backwards email address
Leonardo da Vinci wrote his private notebooks in backwards text. You can use the same idea to protect your email address by writing it backwards, and then using CSS to flip it forwards again when it’s shown on a web page. Since spambots do not understand CSS, they won’t flip the text and get your protected email address.
CSS text direction control is intended to support languages that are written from right-to-left, such as Hebrew and Arabic. It is supported by most (but not all) current web browsers. If your browser shows the result above as “email@example.com”, your browser supports text reversal.
Use a <bdo> tag to reverse a backwards email address
Instead of using CSS to flip backwards text, you can use HTML’s <bdo> tag. Use this tag to take a backwards email address and flip it. Since spambots do not understand HTML tags, they won’t know how to flip the text to get your protected email address.
Most (but not all) current browsers support this tag. If your browser shows the result above as “firstname.lastname@example.org”, your browser supports text reversal.
I tested 23 widely-available email harvesters to see how well these methods work to protect an email address. Each harvester was aimed at a test page containing plain and obfuscated email addresses. In the table below, a harvester gets a check mark if it recognizes the protected address.
All of the harvesters were tested on Windows XP SP2. The names of the harvesters are intentionally left off to avoid giving this web page search engine attention for spammers looking for the ”best” harvester to download.
|Plain email address||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√||√|
|Replace the “@” with a character code - decimal||√||√||√||√||√|
|Replace the “@” with a character code - hexadecimal||√|
|Replace the whole address with character codes - decimal||√||√||√||√|
|Replace the whole address with character codes - hexadecimal||√|
|Replace the whole address with character codes - mix||√|
|Replace the address in a mailto link with URL character codes||√||√|
|Use CSS to reverse a backwards email address||*||*||*||*|
|Use a <bdo> tag to reverse a backwards email address||*||*||*||*|
As expected, every harvester found the plain email address that was not protected.
Five of the harvesters found email addresses obfuscated by encoding them using decimal ASCII character codes, and one harvester found those using hexadecimal codes. Two of the harvesters found email addresses encoded using URL “%” codes.
Several of the harvesters (cells marked with “*”) found the backwards email addresses, but none of harvesters flipped them back to normal.
Obfuscating an email address by encoding it with ASCII character codes is a popular idea, but it doesn’t work well. A quarter of the tested harvesters found the obfuscated addresses. The most successful spam robot in this test (number 13) was released back in 2003, so this protection method has been bypassed for quite awhile. One harvester download site even offered a free email address obfuscator — which, of course, their harvester could bypass. Obfuscating an email address with ASCII character codes is not an effective way to stop email harvesters.
The backwards email addresses were usually ignored by harvesters because they don’t look valid. But five of the harvesters accepted them anyway. Once harvested, spammers run their addresses past email address “verifiers” that probe email servers to confirm that the addresses are good. If backwards addresses become popular (they aren”t yet), it is easy for a programmer to enhance a verifier to check each address both forwards and backwards. Backwards email addresses are only effective until the method becomes popular.
Backwards email addresses have poor usability and accessibility. While the protected address looks normal in a web browser, if you copy and paste it into an email program it comes out backwards. Also, screen readers used by the visually impaired are confused by the backwards address and speak it backwards.
Recommendation: don’t depend upon obfuscation to protect your email address. Spammers have figured out this trick. Use one of the better protection methods discussed in the other articles in this series.