Can Spam – Put Your Inbox on a Diet


The first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the word spam, for most people, is an email advertising certain enhancements to the male body, not the cheap pork brand – which is actually the source of the word. This is not surprising: in 2006, 40% of all e-mails sent – 12 billion per day – were classified as spam emails, and that figure continues to grow constantly as spam vendors evolve and develop their spamming practices.

Many people have had their personal email boxes completely flooded with spam emails – but just how massive is this phenomenon is in real life, for a real person? What websites send the most spam? How do your actions influence the amount of spam sent? Finding answers to these is just the purpose of the recent McAfee research, the results of which have been posted last June. McAfee took spam surveys on a whole new level. 50 volunteers from around the world have been given a computer and email accounts and participated in this research, creatively named Spammed Persistently All Month (SPAM). They have been asked to submit their email addresses to as many websites as possible, including ‘get rich quick’ plans, ‘work from home’ websites, ad clicking websites, and free giveaways: iPods, vacations, etc., and similar.

During the course of the experiment, the volunteers received hundreds of thousands of spam e-mails. Particularly, the research found that US citizens received the biggest amount of spam emails in course of one month: 22,233 per person (average). In contrast, volunteers from Germany and France got only 5000 emails, while the British took the middle spot with 10,000 emails. Besides the geographical aspect, men received more spam emails than women did. McAfee says this is because men traditionally have a larger income than women, and spammers are more interested in them, regardless of their sexuality.

The volunteers set themselves fake identities. Using them, they subscribed to various legitimate-looking work-from-home websites. Volunteers say these websites generated the largest percent of spam sent. Volunteers that gave away their real home address found out they were actually spammed in real-life: their mailbox was flooded with hundreds of printed spam. Then, they were asked to actually reply to these emails and click on various ‘Unsubscribe’, ‘Remove me from the mailing list’, etc. links usually found in spam emails. This led to a massive increase in spam emails, and the final figures were greatly influenced by this.

However, these emails weren’t only innocent looking spam. After confirming their email address by clicking on the various unsubscription links, volunteers received hundreds of 419 scams. Some redirected them to fake PayPal lookalikes. After providing their real PayPal details (of their fake identity, of course), volunteers found foreign IP addresses trying to access their PayPal accounts. Furthermore, most PCs were heavily infected with spyware by the end of the research, presumably by email attachments or scripts on certain websites – even though a McAfee Protection Suite has been installed on the computer.

While this research hasn’t turned out anything new or surprising, it’s a good reminder to what spam really is – a criminal offense, directly relating to scamming and spyware. The numbers collected by the research are staggering, and prove the huge share of spam in online crime activities, which just keeps growing and take a massive part of our lives.

With this in mind, there are methods to prevent spam coming in the first place. Using them will help you keep a cleaner email box and by that, you will join the fight against spam & malware – which are like yin and yang to each other.

  • Don’t give away your personal email address in websites. Set up a separate email account for keeping emails from websites. For especially shady-looking websites, use a free disposable email address – here is a handy list of 20 such services. Never give away your email address on an open forum, discussion board or blog. Spam bots constantly search the net for such addresses. If you really need to include an email address on a webpage, regardless how popular it is, make sure you write it so it doesn’t look like an email address (no ‘@’ sign). For example: don’t *at* spamme *dot* net. Alternatively, you can make your email address a picture.
  • Don’t choose a ‘simple’ email address. While this may seem tempting, easy email addresses are easy to guess. Some spam bots work with dictionary words and combinations of letters, for example: table at gmail dot com, and send messages to these addresses. To fool them, use an address like 2table29k at gmail dot com.
  • Don’t open unknown attachments. Most email providers and/or clients will scan attachments for you, but virus vendors know how to bypass this – simply don’t open attachments from unknown senders.
  • Never reply to spam emails. As proven by McAfee’s experiment: replying to spam emails only makes it worse. Just delete these emails. Replying or clicking unsubscribe is going to make it even worse.
  • Never click on banking or finance links from emails, or links to websites that have your personal details. Even if you get an email that appears to have been sent from your local bank, and the link looks like the website address – don’t click on it. Scammers use different techniques to fool you into entering the username and password in their website. To prevent this, always access baking websites by typing their full address in the browser window.
  • Never provide personal information through emails. Whether it’s an email from your bank, PayPal or your aunt in Florida – never give away passwords by replying to emails. Baking facilities are not authorized to request your password and sensitive data through email as it’s not secure and is open for scamming.
  • Stay away from get rich quick, free gifts and free cash schemes. Some might even earn you a few cents, but they are not worth the effort. Most of them will spam your email box and send scams, and payout is high so you’ll need to wait several years to get your $10. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
  • Use Gmail. Gmail is free and has nearly 7GB of storage, and has one of the best spam filters, even compared to paid solutions. You can also synchronize it with your Outlook, Thunderbird or any other major email client, using POP3 or IMAP.
  • If all hell breaks loose… Start over. Fighting spam once it has taken over your inbox is impossible. The best way to fight spam is to prevent it from reaching your inbox in the first place – so just notify all your contacts and start over by opening a new mail address. Incorporate the tips in this article when opening it. Also, you might want to add an additional layer of security to your inbox by purchasing a paid solution such as Cloudmark. If you have a Security Suite, look for the spam filtering application. While some of these products don’t provide great protection, they do something.

Finally, remember that even if you follow all tips in this article to the letter – by no means this is a guarantee that you will not get spammed. Many malware infections harvest email addresses from infected PCs. So, just having your email address in the contact list, or email box of someone else’s infected computer – could get you spammed. However, following the tips in this article should prevent most spam. Good luck!