How to recognize spam e-mails and how to prevent them

Everyone gets bothered by spam e-mails landing in their inboxes all the time. These unsolicited messages have been a constant part of our e-mail correspondence since the mid-nineties. But what actually is spam and why is it sent? Most importantly, how can you get rid of undesired spam e-mails or prevent them entirely?

The basics of spam e-mails

Spam (often referred to as ‘junk‘) is any unrequested and unwanted messages that are sent electronically. These messages are usually sent (by e-mail) to numerous recipients and relentlessly fill up the inboxes of the world. The majority of these are unsolicited bulk e-mails (UBE) such as chain mails or unsolicited commercial e-mails (UCE). The recipient is usually asked to buy a certain product, reveal personal data, click on a website, or open a file attachment.

Spam e-mails make up around half of all e-mails sent worldwide. The USA is the biggest generator of spam e-mail in the world. In some countries spam e-mails are decreasing and this is due to network providers increasing spam protection and the criminal authorities acting more strictly against spam e-mails.

The term spam comes from the American canned meat brand (‘spiced ham’), and there is even a Monty Python sketch that centers around the curiosities of this tinned meat. In the sketch, the word “spam” is mentioned so often that a normal conversation is no longer possible. A similar situation applies to the communication variant of the word: so many useless spam e-mails flood into a user’s inbox that it becomes almost impossible to discern between wanted and unwanted content.

Different types of spam mails

Spam does not just appear in e-mail correspondence—is also circulated this way. When this happens, the sender is then identified as a spammer. Most spammers use computer programs that are called spambots or harvesting bots. Many junk e-mails contain advertisement for (often shady) products, hoaxes, links to phishing sites, or malware.

The most common forms of spam e-mail can be divided into the following four groups:

  • Advertisements: Vendors of cheap watches (that are imitations of famous luxury brands), unlicensed medicines (commonly Viagra), or illegal internet content use spam to advertise their products. Typical content of solicited e-mails can include links to seemingly free products, which then lead to subscription traps, or links to get-rich-quick schemes. The latter requires a fee-based download that makes the spammer rich.
  • Hoaxes: In many spam mails you will find appeals, warnings or stories that seem very realistic but are actually totally fictitious and melodramatic. If one of the recipients falls for the hoax and forwards the mail, it could quickly snowball out of control.
  • Phishing: This type of spam occurs when someone receives an e-mail from a business (usually a bank) that looks authentic. The recipient is requested to submit personal data, such as account numbers or credit card details, as well as any relevant passwords to this information. For this purpose, phishing fraudsters often create websites that the spam e-mails link to. These websites look deceptively like those of official banks. If you enter your private data, it will fall straight into the hands of criminals.
  • Malware: Many spam e-mails contain malware, also known as malicious software, evilware, or junkware, that then finds its way onto your computer. Computer viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware fall into this category. Opening these programs, links, or attachments, allows the malware to penetrate the system, but most of these are removed by anti-virus programs or other special software.

Why do we receive spam e-mails?

Many users wonder why so much spam is being sent to their e-mail address and, in most cases, are helpless to do anything about it. Spambots and harvesters systematically trawl the internet for e-mail addresses. When they come across an e-mail address they will save it for future junk mails. When friends and acquaintances’ e-mail accounts are hacked, it could mean that your address might fall into the hands of spammers, too. The address book of the hacked account will then be saved for sending spam e-mails.

Often carelessness on the user’s part leads to spammers and spambots getting the information they need. When registering for giveaways, site operators are often allowed, according to the terms and conditions, to use the given e-mail address for promotional purposes. Many giveaways are set up for the sole purpose of collecting addresses for spam reasons. Mentioning your address on websites, social networks, in forums, chats, and comments can make them easy targets for e-mail harvesters.

Preventing spam – how can you protect yourself?

It is impossible to defend yourself completely from spam e-mails since there are too many spammers and spambots out there that send their daily mails. There are, however, a few procedures and tricks to reduce the volume of spam you receive. Only give your main e-mail address when it is totally necessary and definitely do not use it for questionable giveaways or for registering with unknown websites. For less important internet services, it makes sense to use a second e-mail address that is not used for any other activities. This is how to protect your inbox from spam e-mails.

Avoid publishing your main address on internet sites. Make sure to only give your e-mail address to protected online portals and communities and use a modified spelling, such as writing ‘(at)’ or ‘AT’ instead of using the ‘@’ sign. Rather than using a dot in front of the top-level domain, you could write the word ‘DOT’. Some spambots, however, can recognize this disguise and can even generate the correct e-mail address from it. An alternative method is to display your e-mail address as text image. Note that nothing can protect you from spam completely.

Spam filter

A spam filter is a type of software that recognizes and takes care of unwanted messages. These filters are used by every professional e-mail provider and e-mail program. Many of these programs achieve this with automatic inspections of e-mail content, which is known as the blacklist method. This process uses a list of words with typical spam expressions and phrases and, along with additional processes, spam e-mails can be recognized. No method can fully guarantee spam recognition, and it is not uncommon for spam filters to classify normal mail as promotional messages. Nevertheless some spam e-mails can end up in your regular inbox. Despite having a few hiccups, you should definitely make sure a spam filter checks your e-mails.

Recognizing and eliminating spam

If spam is not being filtered out in advance, then you need to recognize it yourself. In such cases only expert spam mail care will yield reliable protection. Many mails can be recognized as spam simply by their subject lines: winner notifications, offensive content, or attractive saving possibilities. When these mails come through the spam filter, the user should mark them as spam. By allocating them to the spam folder, the filter in turn learns to sort out new types of junk mail automatically.

Links and file attachments from suspicious mail should not be opened under any circumstances. Spam content is usually hiding behind these unknown senders and weird-sounding subject lines.

If malware content is accidently opened, your computer can only be saved by an anti-virus program. The purpose of this software is to recognize known viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware and so on. When malware attempts to access your computer, the anti-virus program will block it. No anti-virus program can offer complete protection since the software can only identify and block known malware. Nevertheless an anti-virus program belongs to the most fundamental security measures of a computer.

Be aware that operating systems need current updates in order to be able to stop any security breaches. It is recommended to back up your computer’s most important data onto another medium. This way you will at least have a backup copy should the system be damaged by malware. If you want to protect yourself as much as possible from spam e-mails and their consequences, you should use a spam filter, an anti-virus program, and create a backup copy. The best protection is to be cautious when opening suspicious e-mails and handing out your e-mail address.