Spam. Let’s think about it.

I was going to write a post about junk email; most of us call it spam. If you want to be formal, you might call it ‘unsolicited email’. I had a whole raft of tips and pointers listed for you to take in, digest and act upon. However, I wouldn’t be the first to do this, would I? So I’ve abandoned the ‘here’s what you can do to combat spam’ action list in favour of a slightly different approach.

Spam is a persistent problem for anyone with an email address. What’s surprising about spam, is that despite high profile cases reaching mainstream media, users are still tripped up by unsolicited mail enticing them into re-circulating mail, seeking false claims of health / wealth or imparting their personal details to unknown parties. If you have an email account and receive no spam (ever), then yours is a unique situation. Its more likely that you have received spam, and you (not your mail filter) have made a decision of what to do with it.

Once you’ve received a single spam email, it’s reasonable to expect that you will continue to receive spam at that address. Forever. There’s just no getting away from it. Whilst at various times you may find that the number of spam emails will grow or decline, your best course of action is to manage the flow.

Spam usually originates from unscrupulous individuals who are seeking to obtain your personal information for their own uses – often for financial gain. Spam emails are often (but not always) sent from computers that have been ‘infected’ with a virus, or some form of malware.

So then, without a list ‘things to do’ each time you read an email to make sure it’s not spam, what does this leave for my post? Instead of telling you what may / may not be spam, I want to ask you this:

What do you think when you receive and open an email?

Read the question again. Really give some thought to what you think when you open an email.

When that email pops into your Inbox, there are a few things that could be running through your mind. Perhaps most likely are the polar opposites of “Oh no! More email!”, or perhaps “Ooh! Another email, how exciting!”. Those natural reactions probably take place only moments after the email is noticed, after which you will typically (and in rapid succession) open the email, hastily read the content and make a snap decision to act upon anything contained within. Maybe not the best idea.

Next time you receive an email, pause for a moment. Don’t do anything. Just think.

So now that you’ve carefully read the email and digested it, look closely at the content. What feeling do you get when you read it with due attention? Are you convinced? Does it sound honest, consistent and convincing? What is being asked of you in the email, and by whom; if a stranger on the street requested the same, what would your judgement and reaction be?

It can be difficult to establish whether an email is spam – your judgement is key, and therefore, so too is recognising what characteristics can be found in all spam emails. You need to be on the lookout for phrases like, ‘Forward this to everyone you know!’. The more urgent that plea sounds, the more suspicious you should be! Have you ever known anyone to receive anything (other than a virus) in return for forwarding an email? Think about it. The answer is no. It doesn’t happen. If you are offered a reward for forwarding to a number of your friends, rest assured that you will never receive it. You will, however, make your friends email addresses more vulnerable to spam, and probably cause them some mild annoyance in the process.

I could reel off many tips and pointers about identifying spam, or even give you reference to plenty of resources throughout the web that will help you identify a fraudulent message, but would it make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. You are likely to process the email in just the same way, but with perhaps the added step of checking against a list of ‘known’ messages. There’s less value in this today than ever before – new messages are generated every day with more tactics to get you clicking all sorts of suspicious hyperlinks. No; far better that instead of this I encourage you to please think before you open that email and place your trust in the sender. Give it more thought. Take your time. Don’t fall into the spammers trap.

Feeling deprived of useful URL’s to check spam emails against? Here’s a few:

Hoax Slayer

And here’s the formal reminder: If you are working on a managed network (at work, in College) and you receive something suspicious, let an administrator know! Administrators have a good understanding of common email hoaxes, and also the characteristics you need to look out for. Ask for a little help from an administrator and you might learn a lot!