All about Spam
What is Spam?
It's a rare computer user who hasn't been bothered by Spam at some
stage. By Spam, we mean unsolicited emails that try to sell you things
of a dubious nature that you certainly didn't ask for and, in all probability,
don't need. Everybody hates spam. It can clog up your email box, threaten
the security of your PC, try to trick you into opening dangerous attachments,
and even render the mail box entirely unusable. Here at Home and Learn,
we've had to close down many email addresses due to spam. (We've only
ever met one person who liked spam. This was a pensioner, new to email,
who complained that something was blocking her advertisments. She wanted
to know how she could get them back!)
How do the spammers get hold of my email address?
Spam can come from a wide variety of sources, and the spammers have
many techniques to get hold of your email address. Here's just a few:
> From a web page
If you have ever posted to an online, public forum, and left your email
address on the page, then it will almost certainly end up in the hands
of the spammers. If you have your own website, and include your email
address in plain text, then that will also get stolen by the spammers.
In fact, anywhere on the web where you leave your email address is a
source for the spammers. If you can see it, so can they.
The way they get the address is by something called harvesting. This
is done with a piece of software called a Spider. The sole job of the
Spider is to trawl through website looking for email addresses. Once
the spammer has enough addresses, he (they are usally "he's")
can sell them to third parties, and other spammers.
> From an infected PC.
A lot of viruses these days contain code to trawl through your email
address book. These will then be sent to the spammer. If you have sent
an email to somebody who is infected, and that person has you in his/her
address book, then your address will be sent to the spammer.
> From YOUR infected PC
If you have a virus, the chances are that it will contain code to control
your email. It will then contact another computer and receive a list
of instructions, and email addresses. These instruction say something
like, "Send the following email to this list of addresses".
Your PC won't be sending out thousands of emails, but just a few. This
is because your PC is just one of many thousand that are controlled
by the same spammer (called a botnet). If your computer sends out just,
say, 100 emails a day, then 100 times 1000 computers that the spammer
controls totals 100,000 emails a day. If the spammer controls 10,000
computers then that's a million emails a day he can send out!
> Trial and Error
if you have an email address based on your name, and if your name is
quite a common one, then the spammer will simply send out email trying
to guess the first part. For example, suppose the end of your email
address was "smith.co.uk" And you added "John" to
the start, your email address would be easy to guess, and you'd have
a very busy inbox indeed! If it was "john12_KJ876@smith.co.uk",
it's unlikely the spammers could guess the first part.
Worst case scenarios
If your computer is infected, there could be another nasty side-effect
- YOU get banned! Because your computer has been indentifed as sending
out spam, you may well receive a message from your service provider
telling you that your account has been suspended. You then have to go
to the trouble of contacting your service provider, telling them that
you're not a spammer, and asking what to do to get off their "bad
A more likely scenario is that your email gets bounced back to you
by someone like SpamCop. The email will identify your IP address, and
let you know that you're on a blacklist. SpamCop will keep you on the
blacklist until it receives no more spam from your IP address in a 24
hour period. (It may not be your IP address but the address of your email
servers. In which case, there's nothing you can do about it but notify
your service provider. Your service provider will then totally ignore
your call, and heap the blame on you!)
How to Defeat Spam
You can defeat spam (well, most of it). Here's a few ways.
- Don't post your email address on a web page, unless you're disguising
it in some way. As an example, an email address in this format is
very difficult for a Spider to read, but quite easy for a human:
firstBit @ co. uk. homeandlearn (re-arange the
- Be wary of giving your email address to websites. Ask yourself,
is there a privacy statement anywhere on the site? (Ours is here Privacy
Policy) Can you easily opt-out if they send an email or newsletter
to you? Do you trust them?
- Never reply to a email sent to you by a spammer. If you do, you're
telling the spammer that the email address is live and active - the
very thing that he was looking for! (Remember: the spammer probably
bought his list off someone else, and has no idea whether an address
is active or not.)
- Careful when opening attachments. Save the attachment to your hard-drive
first, scan with your (up-to-date) Anti Virus software, and only then
consider opening it. If you weren't expecting an email with an attachment,
it's safer to just delete the entire email!
- Set your email software to view message as text and NOT as HTML.
In Outlook Express you can do this by clicking Tools > Options
from them menu bar. From the Options dialogue box, click the
Read tab. Put a tick in the box "Read all messages in
plain text". The reason you'd want to do this is because HTML
emails can be very helpful to spammers. They insert an image that
tells them the email has been read, and thus that it's a live email
- Consider getting some Anti-Spam software. The best of these are
very good at detecing spam from the genuine emails. Here's two that
Computer Shopper recommended in a recent review. (Dec 2006)
These both got 5 stars out of 5 in the review. The second one is only
for Outlook or Outlook Express users. (Mcafee anti-spam got 4 stars
out of 5, incidentally, and Norton only got 2!)
A good free anti-spam solution is SpamPal.
This got 4 out of 5 stars, but Computer Shopper noted that it was a
bit "clunky to set up".
But we recommend you start with the free software first,
and test it out. If it's not catching at least 90% of spam coming in,
then uninstall it and try something else!
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