Does a desperate foreign prince really need your help and bank account? Probably not. Welcome to the world of spam. Gone are the days when SPAM referred only to canned lunch meat (which hit the shelves in the US in 1937, if you’re curious). Now it’s usually the junk emails that clutter up inboxes across the globe every day. Spam is most definitely annoying, but can it also be a threat? If you’d like to find out more about spam, particularly how to recognize it and how to help block spam emails, read on.
What is spam and how do you become a spam magnet?
Spam refers to unsolicited email messages that are usually sent in bulk to a long list of unwitting recipients. So, it’s basically the digital version of the junk flyers that flutter through letter boxes into homes. Miracle weight loss pills! $10,000 to work from home! Almost all spam emails are commercially driven, so those sending spam (the “spammers”) are trying to promote and sell questionable goods and services. Spam emails are typically packed with false claims and too-good-to-be-true prices. Here is a list of common spam subjects—you’ll probably recognize them from your own inbox. Online gambling, adult content, pharmaceuticals, financial services, and work-from-home job offers that promise outlandish earnings are all hot favorites. And if you need a quick, fake degree from a fictitious university? Look no further than spam emails peddling false qualifications. You can dig deeper into current spam trends here, including the top ten countries of spam origin.
While most of us would agree that spam is “stupid pointless annoying malware”, it’s a common misconception that this is what the name spam stands for. In fact, it comes from a 1970’s Monty Python sketch which featured a cafe where every menu item contained spam. The food was as dull, repetitive, and unappetizing as the digital versions served up by modern-day spammers. Gary Thuerk is usually considered the original Godfather of spam: In 1978, as an employee of the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, Thuerk sent an unsolicited email promoting a product to around 400 people who had emails stored on an agency research network. It worked and he reportedly generated about $12 million in new sales! In case you’re tempted to follow in Thuerk’s shoes… don’t! Modern-day spam generally has a very low conversion rate. Spam emails are usually mass generated, poorly written, and not tailored to a specific audience, so most people don’t interact with or respond to them. Yet spammers can send their shady wares to huge email lists at a single stroke, so they may still take home a sizeable paycheck if just a tiny minority of recipients falls for the scam.
So, how do spammers get hold of these vast numbers of emails? They need your help! Here’s how you get spam emails: The fastest way to become a top spam recipient is to be generous with your email address. Never ever order from a company that may sell your details to a third party. Don’t advertise your email address on a website where it can quickly be picked up by disreputable companies or spammers who scan websites for emails. Also, don’t hand out your email address in chat rooms, use it to sign random online petitions, or sign up to dodgy sites or adverts that promise insurance quotes, free gifts like iPads, etc. Think of these sites as fertile beds from which spam weeds grow in abundance if you seed them with your email address.
What are the potential dangers of spam?
Most spam is simply irritating and time-consuming, especially if it’s totally overloading your inbox. Emails must be deleted manually and managing thousands of junk emails a month may amount to hours of time wasted—not to mention that truly important emails can be accidentally overlooked or deleted! Sometimes, spam emails have more malicious intentions and are used as hosts to spread malware, like ransomware and viruses. Cybercriminals can use large-scale email lists to allow malware to proliferate across the globe in a very short time.
When emails turn nasty, they’re no longer just junk, but fall into one of the following categories:
Phishing: These emails look like they’re from a company you know and trust and are designed to try and “hook” recipients into handing over their sensitive information like passwords, banking details and contact information. You’re usually tricked into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. Look out for spelling and grammar errors and hover over the sender to reveal the full email address. And remember: Legitimate companies won’t suddenly email or text with a link to update your payment information or reset your password!
Email spoofing: Strictly speaking, this forms part of phishing, but with the sole goal of identity theft. The cyber-attacker usually poses as a representative from a reputable organization to gather your information.
Malspam: This “malicious spam” can deliver malware including ransomware, Trojans, bots, spyware, and keyloggers. A common delivery method is via a Word, PDF, or PowerPoint attachment. Never open an attached file without double-checking the source!
Tech support scams: The message outlines a technical problem you’re experiencing (spoiler alert: You’re not). It invites you to solve this problem by calling the phone number or clicking a link in the email. If you think you may have a problem, always contact your tech company directly via the legitimate contact details on their website. Never trust a random email!
Current event scams: Whether it’s an invitation to book a Covid jab or donate money to a disaster relief fund, cybercriminals happily piggyback on current affairs to draw your attention and hoover up your personal details.
So, unsolicited emails can be more than irritating—if the sender has criminal intent, they can be dangerous too. Read on to find out how you can quickly detect, report, and help minimize spam.
How do you recognize spam emails at a glance?
Always look at the subject line first. Does the email promise a miraculous product or scheme? Could you get richer, slimmer, or stronger just by buying what’s being promoted? That’s most likely spam. Is something desirable being reduced by 90%? Super-lucrative offers aren’t usually real either (sadly). Also, see the sender. Spam usually has a non-standard sender address, with combinations of numbers and letters. Take a close look at the email address though, as more sophisticated spam attacks use social engineering techniques—so names and email addresses look legitimate.
Plus, the content of spam email often bears the following hallmarks: It’s stuffed with links and if they’re malicious URLs, they could direct you to fake webpages. Spam also tends to be poorly written. So, if the grammar and spelling would make a proofreader faint, bin the email.
Cheekily, some spam loudly proclaims not to be spam. “This email isn’t spam! You’re receiving this message because you registered on our website…”. Nice try, but you’re too smart to fall for it of course…
Now read on to explore how to get rid of spam emails.
How to help block spam emails: Report them!
We tend to regard spam as an unavoidable part of our email experience but there are steps you can take to help minimize junk emails. Deleting them won’t make the problem disappear as spammers will send more. To block spam more effectively, it’s important to report it. Follow the steps below for your email provider. This helps your email client learn which email addresses to block and how to filter spam more effectively.
- Open Outlook.
- Right-click the spam email.
- Go to Security Options and click on Mark as Junk.
- Open Gmail.
- Check the box to the left of each spam email you want to report.
- Click the Report Spam button () in the mailbox toolbar.
- Open Apple Mail.
- Click the spam email you want to report.
- Then select the Junk Mail icon in the mailbox toolbar.
How to block junk emails: More top tips
Block unsolicited emails to help stop future spam from being sent from that email address but be careful! Even opening a spam email can prompt spammers to send more junk mail your way. It’s best to follow the steps for your email provider: Here’s how to block emails on Outlook, Gmail, and Apple Mail.
Check your privacy settings. Under the Security (Gmail), Security & Privacy (Apple), or Privacy (Outlook) tab in your email account you can review and change your current settings. Removing access to your account from any third parties sending you spam is a good idea.
Also, unsubscribe from newsletters and mailing lists you don’t really need. There’s a quick trick here: Open your email and type “unsubscribe” into your email search bar. This will bring up all the emails that have the word “unsubscribe” buried in them. Check that each email is indeed from a service you know and trust before clicking on the “unsubscribe” link buried at the bottom.
Create a secondary email address to help thin out spam volumes. The email address you use for online shopping, signing up for events, or downloading software is more likely to attract spam. So, keep these activities separate with an email just for them. Then use another email address for friends, family, and all the people you truly want to hear from.
Sometimes you still need to get in extra muscle. Third party email filters, like Mailwasher, SpamSieve, Zerospam, Spambrella, and SpamTitan can help boost your spam defenses. Do your own research and see how anti-spam software tools are rated on tech comparison sites.
Unsurprisingly, “How to stop unwanted emails” is a popular Google search. Yet the most effective defense is probably… you. Be ultra-careful where you share your email address and never engage with suspected spam. As soon as you open the email, click on a link, or press the “unsubscribe” button, you may alert the spammer that your account is active. Stay invisible and delete the email at once. Any anti-spam strategies should be part of your broader defenses against cyberthreats. Using technology may compromise our digital security, data, and even identity, but it also provides the tools we need to help keep our digital lives safer. Free internet security solutions like Avira Free Security blend multiple layers of online protection, including an antivirus, a software updater, a VPN, a password manager, and more. Don’t just clean up your inbox and dodge spammers—stay Cyber Safe out there.