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Avast Academy Security Other Threats What is Spam: The Essential Guide to Detecting and Preventing Spam

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

Spam is digital junk mail: unsolicited communications sent in bulk over the internet or through any electronic messaging system. Learn what spam is, how it works, how to detect spam, and how to reduce the amount of spam you receive.

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What is spamming?

Anyone who’s spent more than a handful of seconds on the internet has encountered spam. It’s seemingly an inseparable part of the internet experience, something we accept as normal. But how can we define spam? What makes spam emails different from others? In terms of the internet, what does spam mean?

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    The answer is that spam is always unrequested. It’s annoying, it’s usually promotional, it’s sent to loads of people, and it’s coming whether you asked for it or not. If you’ve signed up for a marketing newsletter and later gotten sick of it, that’s unfortunate, but it isn’t spam.

    If the definition of spam is unsolicited bulk messages, spamming is the act of sending these messages, and a person who engages the practice is a spammer. Most of the time, spamming is commercial in nature, and though the spam is bothersome, it isn’t necessarily malicious or fraudulent (though it can be).

    Why is it called spam?

    The use of the term “spam” to describe this type of invasive blanket-messaging is a reference to a Monty Python skit. In it, a group of diners (clad in Viking costumes, no less) loudly and repeatedly proclaim that everyone must eat Spam, regardless of whether they want it or not. It’s similar to how an email spammer will flood your inbox with their unwanted messages.

    When spelled with a capital S, “Spam” refers to the canned pork product that the above-mentioned Vikings love. Use a lowercase S to discuss the endless flood of emails and other messages that you never asked for.

    What kinds of spam are there?

    You can fry it, bake it, scramble it with eggs, eat it on a sandwich, or even serve it with rice and seaweed. But when it comes to the electronic variety, there’s an equally diverse menu available. Here’s a short list of what you might expect in the wide world of spam:

    Email spamEmail spam: Your garden-variety spam. It clogs up your inbox and distracts you from the emails you actually want to read. Rest assured, it’s all extremely ignorable.

    SEO spamSEO spam: Also known as spamdexing, this is the abuse of search engine optimization (SEO) methods to improve search rankings for the spammer’s website. We can divide SEO spam into two broad categories:

        • Content spam: Spammers cram their pages full of popular keywords, usually unrelated to their website, to try and rank their site higher in searches for those keywords. Others will rewrite existing content 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 networking spamSocial networking spam: As the internet grows ever more social, spammers are quick to take advantage, spreading their spam via fake “throwaway” accounts on popular social networking platforms.

    Mobile spamMobile spam: It’s spam in SMS form. In addition to spammy text messages, some spammers also utilize push notifications to draw your attention to their offers.

    Messaging spamMessaging spam: Like email spam, but quicker. Spammers blast their messages out on instant messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Skype, and Snapchat.

    How to recognize spam

    Regardless of how it reaches you — as email spam, social network spam, or one of the others — most spam fits neatly into one of a handful of “genres”. Once you get an idea of what most spam looks like, it’s easy to recognize it when it comes your way.

    If someone gets control of your email account, you might find yourself inundated with spam. You can pop over to our handy Hack Check tool and see if any of your passwords have been leaked.

    Learn how to detect spam by looking out for the following types of messages, all illustrated with recent examples from my personal email account. Because my email service automatically blocks some elements of spam emails, many images in the emails are not visible.

    As you read through this section, pay close attention to the actual email addresses in these examples. Notice how they’re all very long and largely composed of random letters and numbers. This an intentional act on the spammer’s part which helps obfuscate their identity.

    This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of the most common types of spam emails out there.

    • Health and medical services: Miracle cures, weight-loss shortcuts, dietary supplements of dubious repute, hair loss therapies, anti-aging solutions, alternative medicines — all of these and more are frequently hawked by spammers. The vast majority of these products are nothing more than empty promises.

    Example of a spam email promoting an all-natural diabetes treatment

    A spam email promoting a diabetes treatment

    • Dating & adult content: This category also covers a lot of ground, ranging from online dating services and matchmaking agencies to adult websites and bedroom performance enhancements.

    Example of a spam email promoting an online dating service

    A typical spam email advertising an online dating service

    • Computers, internet, and tech: Spammers try to take advantage of how many people aren’t computer experts. Don’t let them fool you with software or hardware offers, internet or mobile services, or general electronics advertisements.

    Example of a spam email promoting a smart home security solution

    This spam email is advertising a home security solution

    • Service enrollment: These involve the spammer trying to convince you to enroll in a long-term service. Educational programs and various types of insurance are common choices. Note how the example email uses urgency as a social engineering tool to try to rush the reader into making a quick decision.

    Example of a spam email promoting a health insurance planThis spam email appears to be sent by a health insurance agency

    • Financial services and awards: Spam of this type promises to help you alleviate monetary woes with low-interest loans, debt assistance, or outright cash prizes. Don’t buy in!

    Example of a spam email offering a financial assistance checkHere’s a spam email promising some monetary relief

    Again, these examples are not intended to represent all the possible angles a spammer might take — just a few of the most pervasive.

    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. They’ve got something to sell, and they’ve decided that spamming is an effective technique for promoting their product, offer, or service. (Of course, those products and services may be low quality or fraudulent.)

    Phishers, on the other hand, are cybercriminals after your sensitive personal information, either via deception or through the use of malware. Like spam, phishing scams are often bulk-mailed, but with more nefarious goals that may include fraud, theft, and even corporate espionage.

    The email shown below is an example of the infamous advance-fee “Nigerian prince” phishing scam, the aim of which is financial theft.

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

    Why am I getting spammed?

    “If I don’t sign up for spam, how can spammers find me?” The disappointing truth is that many companies earn money by selling your email address and other contact info to third parties. This problem has gotten 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 your personal details.

    Spammers use spam because it’s cheap. It costs next to nothing for a spammer to blast emails out to anyone they can find. If only a handful of recipients respond favorably to the campaign, the spammer will easily see a return on their investment.

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

    How to prevent spam

    Spam doesn’t have to be a visible part of your daily digital life. With a few simple tips and tricks, you can learn how to stop spam emails and also reduce the amount of general spam sent your way. At the same time, you’ll learn how to block spam emails by preventing them from appearing in your inbox.

    • Use your email client’s spam-reporting function. Most popular email providers will have a handy button you can click to report an email as spam. By doing this, you can “train” your email to get better at detecting spam. Any emails detected in this way will be sent straight to your spam folder, bypassing your inbox entirely. If your selected email client isn’t auto-detecting spam and phishing emails, switch to one that does.

    • Conversely, tell your email client which emails are not spam. Every so often, take a gander at your spam folder, and if you find anything in there that doesn’t belong, move it to your inbox. This helps your spam filter learn which emails it can ignore.

    • Sign up for things with disposable or fake email addresses. Lots of ecommerce platforms and internet services require an email address for use. If it’s not absolutely necessary, don’t use your primary email for throwaway signups like eBook landing pages or gaming apps. You never know who’s going to sell it to a spammer.

    • Don’t engage with spam in any way. This applies to all types of spam, not just emails. Don’t click links, don’t download attachments, and never respond to a spammer. If you do, it may lead them to believe that you are a receptive target — meaning that they’ll send you more spam.

    • Don’t publish your contact information. Spammers can and do find contacts online. Try your best to keep your online presence as private as possible. This also extends to your phone number and physical address.

    • If someone you know has 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. This way, they can take corrective measures and regain control.

    • If you manage a website, use current software and security measures. Keep your website’s software up-to-date to protect yourself from spammers looking to exploit vulnerabilities. At the same time, implement Captcha technology on login pages, comments and other interactive areas.

    Stay protected with the world’s most trusted antivirus

    With billions of spam messages sent every day, even the most airtight inbox is going to spring a leak sooner or later. Make sure you’re protected against spammy links and attachments that may be harmful to your device. Avast Free Antivirus detects and blocks malware with a two-pronged defense: Web Shield for internet-based threats, and File Shield for anything currently on your computer.

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