What is spam exactly? And what does spam, or “spamming” even mean? The annoying, usually promotional paper flyers that come floating through your real-life letterbox have a digital cousin: Meet spam. It’s the unwanted, unloved, unrequested (and usually disruptive) digital junk mail that clogs up email inboxes worldwide on a daily basis. Although spam messages are typically sent via email, it’s now also found in SMS and social media. Most of us have accepted that spam is here to stay and simply part of the online experience. Yet the more you learn about spam and how it works, the more likely you are to reduce the volumes you receive. So read this handy guide and join us in saying “No!” to digital junk. Plus, effective anti-spam tactics can also help keep you safer online and help protect you from online threats like malware. That’s because spam isn’t just a timewaster: It can also be dangerous. Spam emails can contain viruses or be part of scams designed to steal your bank account details or identity.
What is spam? Not to be confused with canned pork
Unless you’re vegetarian, there’s not much to be offended by with Spam when it’s written with a capital “S”. This refers to the iconic canned pork food that was introduced in the US in 1937, and the name is believed to be a contraction of “spiced ham”. Like the digital variety, Spam travels well and helped solve the problem of delivering fresh meat to soldiers at the front during World War 2. Digital spam (with a small “s”) has far less useful and noble origins. Interestingly, the history of spam as unsolicited email is closely tied to the evolution of the internet itself!
The first email spam was an ad for a presentation by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1978. It was sent to users of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, the first public packet-switched computer network. 10 years later, participants in multi-user dungeon games filled rivals’ accounts with unwanted electronic junk mail as a prank—and “spamming” was born. The term “spam” was first used to describe a bug in a software program that caused 200 messages to go out to a news group. Someone somewhere was a fan of British comedy. The name was a reference to a Monty Python skit about a group of Vikings repeatedly demanding that everyone eat spam, whether they want to or not.
It was the start of something much bigger… and by 2003, the volume of spam email exceeded legitimate email for the first time. That same year, spamming botnets appeared, setting the scene for the global spam deluge we’re facing today. Here’s how they work: When spammers send email from their own system, their IP address can quickly be blacklisted. The spam can also be tracked back to them, possibly resulting in punishment by authorities. Spammers (literally) circumvent the problem by rerouting their outbound spam through someone else’s address. First, they must turn your device into a compliant sender of email. To accomplish this, they get truly sneaky and infect your machine with malware to turn it into a “bot” (the techy term for a zombie servant PC that is ruled over by the spam overlord or “botmaster”). Spammers can create vast armies of bots (botnets), which allow billions of spam emails to be generated. The infamous Rustock botnet is the largest botnet on record and reportedly had the capacity to send around 30 billion emails a day!
So, spam may not just be clogging up your inbox—you could be unwittingly generating it too! Read on to avoid your device becoming a digital cast member of Dawn of the Dead.
Types of spam: Meet the line-up
“Know your enemy” they say. So, let’s take a quick look at the versions of spam you’re most likely to encounter.
E-mail spam: This is the most common type of spam and it’s probably sitting in your inbox as we speak, annoying you and detracting from the emails you need to read. Don’t open it. Delete it. While advanced filters block many of these emails, some still make it through. This spam is quite diverse and ranges from the typically annoying promotions to actively threatening mail, like in these top examples:
- Is the email pretending to be from a legitimate company and convincing you to send sensitive information like banking details? Then it’s a phishing
- Does it promise you a reward, like a prize, free download, or subscription? Beware, as it could be baiting spam that’s trying to con you out of confidential details.
- Is the spammer claiming to provide a solution against spam and encouraging you to open an attachment or click on a link? This is antispam spam.
Social networking spam: As we all congregated on social media platforms, spammers inevitably followed. They create fake accounts to spread their wares.
Mobile spam: This is spam that takes the shape of an SMS. Spammers sometimes use push notifications to get your attention.
Messenger spam: Spammers use instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Skype, plus Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to bombard you. Phishing and baiting are particularly common here, with some messages containing malicious software. Beware! If opened, they can infect computers or mobile devices.
SEO spam: This is also known as “spamdexing”. Spammers use search engine optimization (SEO) methods to boost the search rankings of their website. Sadly, this can undermine the efforts of legitimate SEO experts, whose page rankings are lowered by spammy websites with low-quality content and links. Broadly speaking, there are two types of SEO spam:
- Content spam is when spammers stuff their websites with popular keywords to rank higher in searches. They might also duplicate or re-write existing content to make the page longer.
- Link spam refers to blogs or posts that are filled with (often irrelevant) links. Beware: The spammer is making use of an SEO tactic called “backlinking” to drive internet traffic to their website.
Browser spam: This is newer and less common than email spam and takes advantage of the increasing popularity of browser notifications. When they’re legitimate, these features notify visitors of a site when there is new content available. Be careful, as spammers can manipulate these notifications! They’ll try to trick you into clicking on them to subscribe to sites that will then bombard you with notifications—usually related to dodgy profit schemes.
How to identify spam
It’s worth your while to hone your spam laser vision, because once you get an idea of what most spam looks like, it’s easy to recognize when it comes floating into your cyber-orbit. This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a good idea of what to look for:
- Typical spam themes. Popular topics are dating/adult content (“Want a shipment of Viagra?”), financial services, rewards, debt assistance, and cash prizes (“Prince Bloohblah needs your bank account details!”), plus health/medical services that may promise rapid weight loss, anti-aging solutions, and hair-loss therapies. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So, you’re unlikely to end up a thin billionaire with a head full of hair. Spammers also try to take advantage of users’ poor tech know-how. Don’t be fooled with dodgy internet services, software or hardware offers.
- Unknown sender. Always use your mouse to hover over the email address of the sender to reveal it completely. Spammer addresses tend to be composed of random letters and numbers as the spammer or cybercriminal tries to hide their identity.
- Poor writing. Spam emails may contain grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes or be badly worded. If it’s not something you’d happily send your high-school English teacher, delete it.
- Lack of personalization: As spam messages are sent to thousands of recipients simultaneously, you’ll generally never be addressed by your name.
- Plethora of links and clickable pictures: If the email is screaming at you to click on links, download something, or open images, be wary.
- Email attachments from unknown sources: Typical attachments include Zip, Word, and Excel files. All can harbor malicious software. Delete the email without clicking on links of opening attachments.
- No impressum or contact information: An impressum is a statement of ownership and authorship and holds creators responsible for their work. Inevitably, spammers don’t want to be held accountable and provide no such details.
- No unsubscribe links: You didn’t give the sender permission to send the message so typically spammers provide no way to unsubscribe. If there is an unsubscribe link, however, don’t click on it! The spammer will then know that the email address is valid and will use it to generate more spam.
Prevent spam and get spam protection now
First things first: Most popular email providers have a spam-reporting function. By clicking on the button, you can report email as spam and “train” your email to detect spam. Any emails identified as spam are then sent straight to your spam folder, so they never even reach your inbox. Every now and again, check your spam folder. If you find any mails that don’t belong there, move them to your inbox. This will help improve your system’s spam-detection capabilities. Never, ever be tempted to engage with spam. No downloading attachments. No clicking on links. No hitting “reply”. And if someone you trust and know has sent you spam, let them know that their account has been hacked and is being used for spam.
If you’re signing up for a quick, one-off online service like a gaming app, consider a single-use or “fake” email. You never know if your details will be used for unlawful reasons, so keep your personal email and other contact information as close to your chest as possible. This refers to your entire online presence! Spammers look for contacts online. Are your phone number, physical address, and email available on social media, for example?
Billions of spam emails are sent every day, and some will wriggle through to even the most air-tight inbox. Be vigilant—and ruthless (Delete!). Nevertheless, spam is only a small part of a wider threat to your online security. Always use strong cybersecurity, like Avira Free Antivirus, which offers real-time protection against a range of malware, including the infected attachments and malicious links that can accompany spam. Plus, make sure that your software and online security are always current, to avoid cybercriminals exploiting vulnerabilities in aging systems.
Some providers offer more comprehensive online protection solutions, which include a password manager and greater online privacy with VPN. Consider subscribing to Avira Prime as part of your online defense strategy. It can even help optimize your devices.