Avast Academy Privacy Digital Life What Is Spam: The Essential Guide to Detecting and Preventing Spam

What Is Spam: The Essential Guide to Detecting and Preventing Spam

Spam may seem like an inseparable part of our online experience, and something we’ve come to accept as normal — but it doesn’t have to be. Learn what spam is, how to recognize spam, and how to prevent it. Then, protect yourself against annoying and dangerous email spam and other online threats with Avast One.

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Written by Ivan Belcic
Published on November 11, 2022

What is spam?

Spam is any unsolicited communication sent in bulk. Usually sent via email, spam is also distributed through text messages (SMS), social media, or phone calls. Spam messages often come in the form of harmless (though annoying) promotional emails. But sometimes spam is a fraudulent or malicious scam.

While the definition of spam is any unsolicited message sent in bulk, spamming is the act of sending these messages. And the person who sends the messages is a spammer.

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    Why is it called spam?

    The origin of the term “spam” for invasive bulk messaging refers to a Monty Python skit. In it, a group of diners (clad in Viking costumes) loudly and repeatedly proclaim that everyone must eat Spam — whether they want it or not. It’s similar to how an email spammer floods your inbox with unwanted messages.

    When spelled with a capital “S,” Spam refers to the canned pork product that the above-mentioned Vikings love. Spelled with a lower-case “s” and spam means the unsolicited, disruptive emails and other messages that flood your inbox and other feeds.

    Types of Spam

    Spam can range from annoying emails to different types of internet spam, like social media comments full of excessive links or even sensationalist headlines in media outlets and on other websites that you can’t seem to not see.

    Here are the main types of spam you can find online:

    Spam emails

    Spam emails are the most common type of spam you’re likely to encounter online. They clog up your inbox and distract you from the emails you actually want to read. Thankfully, most email clients allow you to report, filter, and block most spam emails.

    SEO spam

    Also known as “spamdexing,” SEO spam refers to the manipulation of search engine optimization (SEO) methods to improve the rankings of a spammer’s website in search engines. We can divide SEO spam into two broad categories:

    Content spam

    Some spammers cram their pages full of popular keywords to try and rank the pages of their website higher when people make searches with those keywords. Others will use existing content without permission to make their own pages seem more substantial and unique.

    Link spam

    If you’ve come across a blog comment or forum post that’s filled with irrelevant links, you’ve encountered link spam. The spammer is trying to exploit an SEO mechanic known as “backlinking” to drive traffic to their page.

    Social media spam

    With the rise of social media, spammers have been quick to take advantage of all the attention on those platforms, spreading their spam via bots and other sketchy accounts. Most social media spam contains links to commercial pages, which aim to increase traffic or revenue for a spammer’s website.

    Spam text messages and spam calls

    Some spammers send text messages (SMS), push notifications, or even call your cell phone to get your attention. Spam messages can also take the form of instant messages via popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Skype, and Snapchat. It's best to block spam texts and calls from suspected spammers, not answer weird texts, and never click links on any spam messages.

    Tech support scams

    Tech support scams usually begin with a phone call from someone pretending to be an IT professional from a legitimate company. The scammer will try to convince you there’s something wrong with your computer and that if you give them remote access they can fix it. Tech support scams can also start with malicious advertisements on infected sites.

    Current events scams

    The deluge of sensationalist news published daily gives spammers the opportunity to exploit headlines to capitalize on tragedies or political events. You might receive a spam message or spam email asking you to contribute to a fundraising campaign that isn’t legitimate.

    Malware spam (malspam)

    Malware spam is exactly what it sounds like: spam that includes malware. It’s usually delivered to your computer or mobile device via a spam text message or spam email. This type of spam can deliver almost any type of malware, from ransomware to trojans to spyware.

    How to recognize spam

    You can often recognize spam by its apparent urgency, commercial aims, and the unrealistic or exaggerated promises included in the message. Regardless of how it reaches you — via email, text message, social media, or a phone call — most spam fits into one of a handful of genres.

    Learn how to recognize spam emails and messages by watching for these tell-tale signs:

    • Miracle cures

      Weight-loss shortcuts, dubious dietary supplements, and performance enhancers — all of these are frequently hawked by spammers. The vast majority of these products are worthless.

      A spam email promoting an unproven miracle treatment for diabetes.A spam email promoting a supposedly natural diabetes treatment.

    • Dating & adult content

      From online dating propositions, to matchmaking agencies, to adult websites, dating spam messages may also end in a romance scam. If you encounter dating or adult-content spam, ignore it and do not click any links or open attachments.

      An example of spam sent for the purpose of dating. An example of a dating spam message sent via Facebook Messenger.

    • Offers for tech goods or services

      Spammers — and tech support scammers — try to take advantage of how many people aren’t technical experts. Don’t let them fool you with software or hardware offers, internet services, or general electronics advertisements.

      Many spammers take advantage of non-tech-savvy people by spamming their email inboxes with special offers.This spam example is advertising an alleged home security solution.

    • Urgent service enrollment

      Service spam involves spammers trying to convince you to enroll in a long-term service. Educational programs and various types of insurance are common choices. Typically, spammers use urgency as a social engineering tool to try to push people into making rash decisions.

      An example of spam urging customers to make speedy decisions. This spam email appears to be sent by a health insurance agency.

    • Financial awards and services

      Financial spam often promises to help you resolve monetary issues with low-interest loans, debt assistance, or outright cash prizes. Sometimes these emails are also phishing scams.

      Many spam emails and messages offering cash or credit outright are also phishing scams. This example of financial spam promises an instant payout.

    • Unknown sender

      Spammers that send fraudulent emails and messages often use long email addresses composed of random letters and numbers. This is intentional, because it helps hide the spammer’s identity.

      Many spam emails are random numbers and letters to hide the identity of the spammer.Spam emails often use fake email addresses to hide their identity.

    • Language mistakes

      Typos, misspellings, and obvious grammatical mistakes aren’t oversights that legitimate companies should make. If you receive messages with unnatural language or littered with errors, that can be a sign of spam or that the message was sent from a questionable source.

      Spam emails that may also be malicious often contain grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or typos.Typos, grammatical mistakes, and pushy language can be obvious signs of spam.

    These are just some examples of what to look out for when trying to recognize spam. But remember that many legitimate companies send emails and messages that feel spammy too, even though their commercial aims are legit. If you’re unsure whether a particular email or message is real or dangerous, it’s best to ignore it and not interact.

    Spamming vs Phishing

    The difference between spamming and phishing lies in the intent of the spammer (or phisher). Spammers are a nuisance, but they usually aren’t out to hurt you. Phishing attacks, on the other hand, are carried out by cybercriminals who want to access your personal information or infect your device with malware.

    Spammers have something to sell, and they’ve decided that spamming is an effective technique for promoting their product or service — of course, some products and services may be low quality or fraudulent. And while phishing attacks that cast a wide net are a type of spam, they usually have more nefarious goals — such as fraud, identity theft, and even corporate espionage.

    The email shown below is an example of the infamous advance-fee “Nigerian prince” phishing scam. A browser with anti-phishing technology, such as Avast Secure Browser, can protect you against this type of scam.

    An example of an advance-fee phishing scam email.Captain John White doesn’t have $11.5 million. He isn’t even real.

    Why am I getting spammed?

    You receive spam messages because many companies sell their customers’ email address and other contact info to advertisers and other third parties. And spammers send bulk emails because it’s cheap. If only a handful of recipients respond to their spam campaign, the spammer will likely see a positive return.

    Because most spammers use spoofing to conceal their identity from recipients and internet service providers, it’s difficult to hold them accountable. The low risk and cost of spamming make it an attractive option for less-scrupulous advertisers and marketers.

    The problem of selling data to spammers was getting so bad that in 2018, the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a series of rules aimed at limiting what companies are allowed to do with their customers’ personal data.

    By 2021, many companies had shifted away from third-party data processing, opting instead to keep customer data in house — reducing spam and increasing consumer privacy.

    How to prevent spam

    You can block spam with a few simple tips and tricks. Here are a few ways to prevent spam emails and avoid other spam messages:

    • Use the spam-reporting function. Most email providers have an option (button) to report an email as spam. By reporting spam in your email, you can “train” your inbox to get better at detecting spam. Any spam emails detected will be sent straight to your spam folder. If your email client isn’t auto-detecting spam and phishing emails, switch to one that does.

    • Mark which emails are not spam. Every so often, look at your spam folder, because sometimes legitimate messages end up there. If you find anything in your spam folder that doesn’t belong, move it to your inbox. That also helps train your spam filter to learn which emails to block and which to let through.

    • Sign up for some services with alternate email addresses. Lots of ecommerce platforms and internet services require an email address. If it’s not absolutely necessary, don’t use your primary email for throwaway or one-time signups.

    • Don’t interact with spam. When you receive spam emails or text messages, don’t click links, don’t download attachments, and never respond to the spammer. If you do, they may think you’re a receptive target — meaning that they’ll send you more spam. Or the links may be infected or redirect you to fraudulent websites.

    • Don’t publish your contact information. Spammers can — and do — find contacts online. Keep your online presence as private as possible. This also extends to your phone number, physical address, and other personal information. Check out our guide to hiding your IP address online.

    • Check for data leaks involving your email. Pop over to our free Hack Check tool and see if your passwords have leaked. If so, follow the instructions sent to your email to change your passwords and start removing your personal information from the web.

    • If someone you know sent you spam, tell them. If you’ve received a spam message from a trusted contact, tell them that their account has been hacked and used for spamming. That way, they can take corrective measures and regain control.

    • Use updated software and strong security measures. Keep your devices, software, and apps updated to protect yourself from spammers looking to exploit vulnerabilities. Use strong passwords for all your accounts and two-factor authentication when signing in to secure portals.

    • Use strong security software.
      With spam and other online risks continuing to threaten your security, you need a strong antivirus app that gives you real-time protection against the assortment of threat vectors out there.

    Stay protected with world-class security software

    With billions of spam messages sent every day, even the most airtight inbox will spring a leak eventually. Avast One is a comprehensive security solution that keeps scams away from your email account and protects you in real time against the viruses, malicious links, and attachments that often accompany spam emails.

    And Avast One is more than just an industry-leading anti-malware solution. It also packs a powerful firewall to prevent hackers from accessing your system, monitors apps for suspicious activity, and can scan your home network to make sure all your devices stay safe. Download Avast One for free today.

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    Digital Life
    Ivan Belcic