What is spam?

The term spam is Internet slang that refers to unsolicited commercial email or unsolicited bulk email. Some people refer to this kind of communication as junk email to equate it with the paper junk mail that comes through the postal service. Unsolicited email is email that you did not request; it most often contains advertisements for services or products. There are very few reputable marketers using spam to advertise goods and services. The most commonly seen spam includes the following:

  • “Phishing” scams, currently the most popular and thus dangerous form of email fraud.
  • Foreign bank scams or advance fee fraud schemes.
  • Pyramid schemes, including multilevel marketing.
  • Other “Get Rich Quick” or “Make Money Fast” schemes.
  • Health products and cheap prescription drugs.
  • Ads for pornographic websites.
  • Offers of software for collecting email addresses and sending unsolicited commercial email.
  • Offers of bulk emailing services for sending unsolicited commercial email.
  • Chain letters.
  • Illegally pirated software (“Warez”).

How spammers operate

Unlike junk paper mail, email spam costs the sender very little to send. Almost all of the costs are paid by the recipient and the carriers because the spammer does not have to pay for all the Internet bandwidth tied up in the delivery of the spam. Because they have no incentive to be efficient in their mass emailing, spammers usually don’t put much effort into verifying email addresses. They use automatic programs called bots to search the web and newsgroups, collecting addresses, or they can purchase them in bulk from other companies. Spammers also guess at addresses using name generation programs and even send thousands of messages that bounce due to invalid addresses. In order to get a single response, spammers are willing to send out thousands of email messages.

Many spam senders use tricks to get you to read their messages. For example, they use the “Subject:” line to entice you to open the message. Because of the tricks spammers use to send the email to you, your email address may not even be visible in the “To:” line of the message, and you almost never see the email addresses of the other people they sent the message to. The worst thing about spam, though, is that the spammers use tricks that help disguise the origin of their messages.

One of the spammer’s most common tricks is to relay messages through the email server of an innocent third party. This tactic doubles the damages: both the receiving system and the innocent relay system are flooded with spam. And for any mail that gets through, often the flood of complaints goes back to the innocent site because it was made to look like the origin of the spam. Many spammers send their spam from a free account from a large ISP such as AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, then abandon the account and open a new one to use for the next assault. Another common trick that spammers use is to forge the headers of messages, making it appear as though the message originated elsewhere. This is called spoofed email. There are some pieces of information in the full headers that the spammer cannot forge, but even after a technical investigation into the source of the message, most often the resulting information leads to a dead end, usually an abandoned account or an innocent mail relay server.

Why am I getting spam?

Is your email address on any web pages? Do you post to newsgroups using your Red River College address? Research by the Federal Trade Commission and by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that email addresses posted on websites or in newsgroups attract the most spam. A simple way to find out why you’re getting so much spam is to type your email address into a search engine, such as google.ca. The number of times your address is found by the search may surprise you.

You might also receive spam if you fill out online forms or correspond with certain companies via email. Although most reputable sites have good privacy policies and won’t share your information, it is up to you to decide what sites you trust not to sell your address to spammers.

What to do…

Spam has increasingly become a problem on the Internet, and even though there may be laws concerning some types of unsolicited email (most often the fraudulent kind), these laws do not address all types of spam email and it can be very costly to pursue spammers through the courts. Although computer experts are constantly designing better and better ways to filter out unwanted mail, the spammers are also constantly devising ways to get around those technical solutions. It is a very frustrating situation for users as well as for technical support personnel. It is a basic fact of Internet life that if you use the Internet, you will get unsolicited email.