Spam is the general term for unsolicited emails sent to large numbers of people. Such emails could be hoax messages designed to mislead, or they could be used to advertise a product.
In terms of advertising, spam email is similar to the marketing leaflets and letters that drop through your letterbox at home. However, this paper mail is subject to legislation that tightly controls the range of products and services being offered. The equivalent legislation does not yet exist in the electronic world, although new laws are being introduced. For example, in the USA the federal law ‘Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing’ (CAN-SPAM) took effect in January 2004, whilst in Europe the EU ‘Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications’ came into force in the latter part of 2003. Though such national legislation is intended to limit the volume of spam email, in practice this is a very difficult task because the internet crosses national borders. Spam can be sent from one country to another, and countries that have legislation find it hard to enforce their rules in countries that do not.
Spam email can be sent only if the spammer (the person initiating the spam) has a collection of email addresses to send to. Common ways to ‘harvest’ email addresses include:
- company databases
- online discussion groups
- including links in images within emails, which when clicked by the recipient inform the spammer that the message has been opened
- infecting unprotected computers with malicious software to look for addresses.
Spammers may harvest vast numbers of email addresses, but not immediately know whether a particular email address is ‘live’ (actually in use) – it could be that the original owner of the address no longer uses it. So beware of spam emails that appear to give you the option to unsubscribe from a mailing list (very often by offering a web link to click on). If you select this option, this will verify to the spammers that your email address is live; they can then continue to send you spam, or even sell your email address to other spammers. So using the unsubscribe option can increase your spam rather than reduce it.
Below are some guidelines for minimising the spam you receive.
- Don’t reply to spam emails.
- Don’t use the unsubscribe option in response to unrequested emails.
- Don’t reveal your email address unless you want to receive mail from a particular source.
- Don’t post your email address on a website.
- Don’t use your regular email address when registering on websites or joining discussion groups. Either create a new email address for these purposes or use a spare one that you’re happy to abandon if necessary (e.g. a web-based email account such as those offered by Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, etc.).
- Set your email software to filter out unwanted messages. Most email software is equipped with ‘junk mail’ filters that can be set to identify and remove spam messages as they arrive in your inbox. Additionally, your internet service provider (ISP) may filter incoming mail for spam before it even reaches your inbox.
- Ensure that all other users of your computer follow the above guidance.