E-mail was supposed to make your life easier, faster, and cheaper — not messier, uglier, and cheesier. Here’s how to keep the spam off your plate.

Free money. Herbal Viagra. Urgent requests for assistance from obscure Nigerian royalty. Welcome to the land of spam.

It’s enough to drive you nuts, which, according to Ferris Research, is exactly what’s happening: The average American white-collar worker spends a quarter of her time at work weeding through e-mail, and, according to the Radicati Group, a whopping 32 percent of all e-mail messages received are unsolicited junk e-mail. In fact, 2.3 billion spam messages are sent every day.

Nor is spam just the province of small-time, individual mass mailers: It has also, unfortunately, become the marketing tool of choice for brand-name companies. As a result, systems administrators face the vexing problem of figuring out exactly what constitutes spam. (Last spring, AT&T Broadband’s spam filters infamously blocked a mass e-mailing to its own subscribers about upcoming rate increases.)

But the good news is that the spam epidemic launched an explosion in legitimate products and services to help combat the problem. Here’s how to miss the mystery meat.

1. Create a “throwaway” e-mail address. By now, most of us separate our work and personal e-mail by maintaining two different e-mail accounts. It’s time to add address number three. Use this one for anything “public,” such as signing up for e-mail newsletters, posting comments on chat sites, or providing contacts for Web purchases.

2. Don’t reply to spam — even to unsubscribe from a mailing list, unless, of course, the message comes from a trusted company. Replying or requesting removal from lists often notifies marketers that they’ve reached a “live” address and, in some cases, actually increases spam. If it comes from an established company, feel free to reply and unsubscribe from the mailing: Corporations are required by law to take you off of their lists if you ask.

3. Never buy anything from a spam message. If you do, you’re asking for trouble. It leaves you wide open to credit-card fraud and ensures your addition to every spam list on the planet.

4. Don’t be complacent: Report spam. Programs like SpamKiller and iHateSpam make this easy with complaint buttons. Look for future versions of Microsoft Outlook and other e-mail clients to add similar features. If you don’t use a program with this feature, you can still contribute to the cause: Go to http://spamcop.net and register for its free service. When you receive spam, copy the Internet headers of the message and send them to the folks at SpamCop.