What is spam?
Spam is unwanted and unsolicited email. It is often sent on behalf or by unscrupulous advertisers, but it is just as likely to be the work of virus writers, seeking to infect others computers and hack into them, or fraudsters seeking to defraud the unwary.
An estimated 55 billion spam messages are sent each day. The cost to the US economy alone of spam email is put at £5 billion a year.
Why is there so much spam?
Because it is virtually cost free to the sender. Using free ISP broadband accounts and free mail services, spammers only main costs are maintaining a database of 'live' email addresses.
Much spam is sent unwittingly via the computers of third-parties. Spammers gain control of others' computers via Trojan horse viruses - programmes that stealthily allow them to hack into and secretly download programmes onto others machines.
The Trojan horses have usually been accidentally downloaded onto the victim's computers after they opened spam messages containing hidden 'malware' code.
Once the spam is sent, its sender needs only a minute proportion of its recipients to respond for the operation to be profitable. Many spammers have become millionaires through their operations and organized crime is implicated in much of this activity.
How to minimise spam
Even before it is opened, spam is a nuisance because it takes up your time, clogs up your inbox (and bandwidth!) and slows down the service provided by your mail provider.
The golden rule is not to open unsolicited mail. If you aren't sure that it is totally unwanted, create a spam folder and stick the message in there until it can be checked out.
Bear in mind that even previewing the message without opening it may alert a spammer that your email address is 'live' - leading to lots more junk messages.
Avoid letting spammers 'harvest' your email address by avoiding posting it on public forums (like messageboards). If you must use an address, create an easily disposable and free one via a service like Hotmail. MSN, who operate Hotmail, have excellent anti-spam measures in place.
If you run a commercial site one way to avoid spammers harvesting your address is to use a contact form rather than state openly your address. You'll need to contact your site provider to find out if you are able to do this on the server you are hosted upon.
Another anti-harvesting technique is called 'munging'. This means deliberately disguising your email address from 'spambots' - the automated programmes that spammers create to seek out likely target addresses.
An example of munging is listing your address as Mailto:Joebloggs@somewhere.com rather than just writing Joebloggs@somewhere.com .
Even safer is writing mail Joebloggs @ somewhere.com.
Blocking and filtering programmes can help eliminate some spam. Blocking programmes recognize likely spamming addresses and/or search for attachments with malware on them. They simply bounce back such mail to the recipient.
Your inbox never receives the spam, but the disadvantages are that some legitimate mail may not be delivered.
Filtering programmes search for key words spammers use (such as 'viagra'; 'porn' or 'XXX') and do not deliver such messages. Often such messages are delivered to a Junkmail Folder, where you can open them if you decide they are legitimate post.
Spammers try to get around such filtering by using convoluted language, spelling and punctuation to baffle the programmes.
What do I need for my e-mail security?
- Up-to-date anti-virus software (to ward off viruses and worms)
- Anti-spyware software (to ward off trojans, adware and spyware)
- Anti-spam, -phishing, -scam software (to cut down on wasted staff time)
- Content security software (to make sure confidential, sensitive or illegal content is neither circulated within nor leaked from the company)
- A company email usage policy (to reduce staff misuse of the email, and give you some redress for when they do misuse it
At present there is no way you are going to eliminate all spam from your mail account. Microsoft, national governments and other interested parties are working on plans to make spamming uneconomic, but at present the problem remains and is growing.
The golden rule must be - if you don't know where the mail has come from and suspect its contents DON'T OPEN IT.
This includes chain emails forwarded on by friends, which can unwittingly spread malware. Get a good anti-virus programme and firewall and ask your site provider about security measures you should be taking.
Basic vigilance can keep your machine safe and sound.