THE TIDES OF SPAM

Spam emails have been a reality since the advent of the internet. Seriously; the first recorded spam email message was sent back on the progenitor of the internet, ARPANET, in 1978. Back then, it only reached 393 recipients, but it was the earliest case of unsolicited mass advertising using email.

It’s only gotten more prevalent over time as the internet has grown. The advent of botnets, starting in the 1990’s, has allowed spammers to start using an unending supply of zombie computers to blast out emails from all directions. There’s no hiding from it, these days. Junk folders have become a fixture in email clients and a spam filter has become a necessity to prevent a ceaseless stream of phishing emails from landing in your inbox. It speaks volumes about the issue when you step back to look at just how much security is focused on holding back these unwanted messages.

WHAT SPAM IS MADE OF

I probably don’t have to tell you what a spam email is, but for those of you in the dark, let me be the first to welcome you to the internet. Spam emails vary in content from your standard unsolicited advertisements to straight-up fraud. Perhaps the most notorious of which is the old Nigerian 419 scam, in which a supposed Nigerian Prince requests a cash advance of a large fee with the promise of a transfer of a greater sum of money in return. The concept may seem outlandish and preposterous to most, but the ludicrous nature of the email ensures that only the most hopelessly gullible will respond.

Others are much more insidious than that. Termed “phishing” scams by the tech community, these spam emails often imitate authenticate senders and companies in hopes of fooling the recipient. Ranging from false notifications from social media sites to messages from shipping companies about failed or attempted package delivery. The more innocuous and common they seem, the more people will click on the links within them, which commonly lead to virus infected websites or forms that request the entry of account information.

EVERYONE’S FAVOURITE LUNCHEON MEAT

Spam comes from all over the world, and isn’t merely the result of looser regulations. The top spamming countries are tracked by various organizations, and the list is in near constant flux. Of the worst offenders, the United States, China, and Russia tend to linger near the top. No surprise, given their looser regulations concerning spam, but when you adjust the numbers to a per capita perspective, countries like South Korea, Bulgaria, and Ukraine bubble to the top, but it really could be anyone. The internet is a global community, so wherever hackers can rope together a botnet; that’s where spam comes from.

Step outside the confines of your spam filter and you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of internet traffic is spam. Estimates place the amount of spam at somewhere around 65-85% of all email. In 2009, Ferris Research estimated the cost of spam is around $130 billion US worldwide a year for businesses due to spam, caused by productivity loss and helpdesk costs. This has only grown over the years, thanks to the refinement of the process and the easy availability of botnets; large networks of virus infected computers.

SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM

Even if you rarely ever use an email address, there’s a good chance that it will receive spam. The number of methods that a spammer uses to obtain their sizeable address list is so vast it would be difficult to really list them all. The simple fact is; if your email exists, it’s probably visible somewhere.

Placing your email in text format on a website is the most common method, since it’s relatively simple for a hacker to just program a crawler to search through cached websites for these. If you’re on a public mail server, such as outlook.com or gmail, your address might be discovered by a “dictionary search”; specialized scripts that register millions of email addresses and variations, looking for existing ones.

Most of the time, email addresses are given up voluntarily. Your personal data is a commodity these days, one that any large company wants. If you sign up for an account on any website and make the mistake of not reading the terms of use agreement or missing a checkbox before hitting the okay button, then there’s a good chance that you just granted them permission to distribute your email address to their “partners.” Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

There’s apparently good money to be made in lists of these emails, and for good reason. If one person responds out of every 1000 spam emails sent (that’s not a real statistic), then a list of one million addresses nets you 1000 possible rubes who can easily be convinced to open their wallets. That’s a lot of free money!

SPICED MEAT IN A CAN

So, how do you stay off spam lists? That’s tough. It’s almost an inevitability that you’ll one day be picked up by a mailing list. It can happen when you use it to sign up for a service, when another person’s address list is compromised, and sometimes it’s just guessed by the spammer’s software. Often, it’s simply out of your control.

Really, all you can do to protect yourself from the turbulent tides of spam that surround mail servers is to hide behind a good spam filter. Luckily, many public mail hosts provide one as a free service when you sign up for an address with them. Otherwise, there are a lot of choices out there, it’s just a matter of finding one that works for you.

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