What is spam?  The name always conjures up that bad ham product sold in the can.  But here, I am using spam to mean unwanted email.  It is the electronic equivalent to the junk mail we get in our home mailboxes.  According to Wikipedia, spam accounts for almost 80% of all mail sent, but that may be due to differing interpretations of spam.

In the broadest sense, spam includes all emails that you do not want.  So, they may include those jokes you get from friends or the political statements from relatives.  Sometimes those are liked, so they are not always spam.  Spam also includes advertisements from legitimate stores with which you do business (again, sometimes these are desired emails).   We do not really need to worry about these kinds of spam since they do little harm, other than wasting our time.

A related kind of spam is the email that announce something totally false and ask you to forward it to all of your friends.  Sometimes these are heart-wrenching like children being kidnapped or women being assaulted in a parking lot.  Sometimes these are about poisoning, like anthrax being secretly put in common products.  Or they might be about something you can win if you only forward the email.  These do not harm YOU to resend them, but they do unnecessarily fill up the mailboxes of your friends AND spread incorrect information.

Some spam might forward images or advertisements that are offensive to some users.   While it is not clear why they do it, some people like sending pornographic images to unsuspecting users.  For this reason, most mail programs have the default set to not showing photos when we open our email.

But there are versions of spam that are worth the worry.  Some spam involve phishing.  These include offers of desirable products  at a very low price, announcements of a problem with some legal paperwork or account, or some other way to get you to a site that is controlled by people with nefarious intentions.  The goal of these individuals is to defraud the recipient into revealing information that can be used to steal money or one’s identity, or to sending money to a fake location.  Spammers often use false names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information to make it difficult for law enforcement to find them.  They also change their email addresses and Internet Service Provider often to make it difficult to find them.

Is this legal?  Well, since its inception, the Acceptable Use Agreement of the Internet (and of most ISP’s) has forbidden the sending of spam.    In the U.S., mail is not spam (and therefore legal) if a “truthful” subject line, no forged information in the technical headers or sender address, and other minor requirements.  Other countries, such as the European Union and Canada have more restrictive laws.  But, the magnitude of the problem is too big for internet officials to pursue spammers.

Fortunately, many spams are easily identifiable by their location, their subject or the contents of the emails.  In those cases, your Internet provider has probably already moved the emails to your “spam” directory for you.  You can look at them and even answer them (sometimes the spam filters are wrong), but generally you will just want to delete anything they put in that directory.  This keeps affects of the problem to a minimum for most people.

What can you do to help stop the problem?

  1. Think twice before sending that email to all of your friends and relatives.
  2. If there is an announcement in the email, check it out before you forward it.  One site for checking the veracity of email messages is snopes.com.  Yes, I am sure your friends are knowledgeable and well meaning … check it anyway.
  3. If the offer seems too good, ignore it.
  4. NEVER click on a link in an email, even if you know the person from which it was sent.  What it says and where it goes may be two different things.  Copy the email address and paste it to your browser if you really want to follow it.
  5. NEVER give personal information such as passwords, social security numbers or other identifying information over the internet.
  6. NEVER purchase (as in giving your credit card number) from an establishment that is not well known.  Look for a secure connection and some form of approval such as verisign or Better Business Bureau.
  7. If it feels wrong, don’t go there.  If you never heard of the company, don’t go there.  Use the same methods of evaluating vendors that you do in brick and mortar stores.