Matt De Bernardo: Spam and PC Security Guide


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What is Spam?

Difficult to define, isn't it?

Quite surprisingly, spam itself is a very difficult term to define. And yet, paradoxically, it's instantly recognizable by the recipient.

First of all, spam has may different pseudonyms. Here are some of the more common ones:

UCE - Unsolicited Commercial Email.

UBE - Unsolicited Bulk Email.

Junk Mail - this is the term used by Microsoft's popular Hotmail (aka Windows Live Mail) service to denote spam.

Bulk Mail - this is the term that Yahoo's popular Yahoo! Mail service uses to classify spam.

Spam - the common blanket term. Google's Gmail service uses this term, too.

You'll notice that the word 'unsolicited' seems to pop up quite regularly in the aforementioned pseudonyms. And that is essentially what spam really is. To put succinctly, spam is unsolicited email that's usually sent in bulk. And it's of commercial nature. That means the spam email is used to advertise something, whether it is generic medicine from questionable offshore manufacturers, to luxury (and counterfeit) watches, to stock options (illegal in most jurisdictions), to dating website, to those naughty websites one does not mention in polite (and even not-so-polite) company.

But increasingly, spam is being used to transmit computer viruses and other nasty computer programs, and also to trap the unwary into handing out one's personal bank account details in the ever popular Nigerian 411/419 (a.k.a advance-fee fraud) Scams spam.

In the United States, the American National Center for Education statistics defines spam as:

"Spam refers to electronic junk mail or junk newsgroup postings. Some people define spam even more generally as any unsolicited e-mail. In addition to being a nuisance, spam also eats up a lot of network bandwidth. Because the Internet is a public network, little can be done to prevent spam, just as it is impossible to prevent junk mail. However, the use of software filters in e-mail programs can be used to remove most spam sent through e-mail.”

That's actually quite a good explanation. It practically emphasizes the problems that we, as internet uses, face while attempting to use the internet as a useful communication medium and educational resource. While little can be done to curb this massive and ever-growing problem, there are methods that the everyday internet surfer can take to prevent and then limit the amount of spam they receive. This will be described in greater detail later.

Clark University, in Massachusetts, USA, goes one step further and adds:

"SPAM mail is the practice of sending massive amounts of email promotions or advertisements (and scams) to people that have not asked for it. Many times, SPAM email lists are created by "harvesting" email addresses from discussion boards and groups, chat rooms, IRC, Usenet and web pages. Email addresses can also be obtained by purchasing email lists from third party companies or retailers."
Clark University IT Services []

This is, once again, a marvellous and succinct explanation. Most, if not all, spam is sent in bulk. And this reason for this is very simple - because of the way the internet works, it means that it costs a spammer the same to send one spam email as it costs to send millions of spam emails. All the spammer needs to complete their nefarious deeds is a computer and internet service provider (ISP), and email addresses to send the spam to. Again, this will be discussed in greater depth later.

The Radicati Group, Inc, a technology market research firm, analysed spam in 2009 and then broke it down and categorized the types of spam they received. Then then published the results in Analyst Review of Hotmail Anti-Spam Technology whitepaper:

Source: []

Radicati also develeoped a new term of email called 'Graymail':

"Graymail may include newsletters, social networking emails, and various types of alerts. Often the user has signed up for these and does not recall doing so, or may have inadvertently triggered the receipt of such email from websites they may have visited. Sometimes it's simply too much information at the wrong time from what would normally be a welcome sender (e.g. airline frequent flyer groups). "

Source: []

The problem with all of this is that someone, somewhere, eventually has to pay for all this spam. And the payee happens to be the everyday internet user like you or me. Why? Firstly, we waste our time wading through clogged up inboxes clearing out all the spam there. A business might not get genuine email from clients because their inboxes are full or filters are set to high and block genuine email. It costs internet service providers and those that supply the internet backbones to transmit data (see next section), which is then in turn passed onto us by way of access charges. Not only is it immoral, it's just not fair.

On to the next section, Why is Spam a Problem.