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SciTech Watch: Email Spam

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ms_150x140_email_F If you use a lot of electronic mail and/or have any of the free email accounts, you have probably encountered spam. Spam emails are those emails that show up in your inbox or some other folder of your email client enticing you to buy things and sometimes more. The email addresses look legitimate, but the contents of the emails are full of funny spellings and often random words. In this column we’ll talk about what spam is, some of the threats that spam can pose to you and your computer, and what you and your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can do to deal with spam.

Spam is loosely defined as any email that shows up in your personal email without you requesting it or knowing the party who is sending the spam email. Emails considered spam are almost always trying to sell you something. Current favorites of the spammers are prescriptions drugs, cheap software, drugs for sexual performance enhancement, and knock-off timepieces. The people who send out these emails can purchase tremendous lists of email addresses from various sources. Then, using special software, they send their advertising content out to everyone they have email addresses for. They make money based on the number of emails they send out and the number times someone responds to one of these spam emails. Email addresses are harvested from many places. Sources include blogs, online forums, online purchases, and websites. Using special tools called web crawlers, they scour websites looking at the actual HTML code of web sites and collecting any email addresses they recognize.[ADBLOCKHERE]

Spam can cause problems with your computer and, in some cases, threaten your privacy. Sometimes the sheer volume of spam flowing down the network to your email box slows down all the other functions you’re asking your computer to perform. This is especially true if you are using a dial-up phone line connection like those provided by Netzero or AOL.

Besides cluttering your inbox with messages that you do not care to read, spam can be used as a delivery mechanism for sophisticated attacks on your privacy. Emails asking you to re-enter personal information on a website or asking your help in getting money out of a foreign country are always attempts to steal your personal information in order to commit identity theft. Additionally, some emails contain a program embedded in them that when executed will install software (also known as malware since it does malicious things) that performs activities ranging from annoying, to downright illegal. Pop-up ads that appear mysteriously on your computer screen, lots of unexpected network traffic from your computer and generally slow performance of your machine are indicators that some sort of malware has installed itself on your PC.

papierSince email spam is a major customer service problem for ISPs, they invest time and money in detecting spam and preventing it from reaching your inbox. An ISP’s mail servers look closely at email addressed to you and try to determine if it is a legitimate piece of email. They use pattern recognition on the body of the email looking for key words that are often found in spam. The addressing information contained at the top of the email, known as the header is also scanned for clues. The header contains information about where the email originated and this information can be used to determine if an email is originating from a known spamming site on the Internet. There are many places on the Internet that keep a list of known spammer hosts and these sites allow email servers to look up the place the email originated and determine whether or not it’s a spammer. If the reputation is bad enough, the ISP’s email server will not accept the email. All of these procedures that ISPs put in place constitute a set of tests that an email has to pass before it is let into an email server. Spammers are constantly trying new tricks to defeat these tests. They intentionally misspell words in their emails to prevent keyword searches from detecting them. They add large numbers of random words into the email again to disrupt any pattern recognition the ISP’s mail server is performing. Since emails can be tracked back to their source on the Internet, spammers often use PCs that have been hijacked with malware to send out their emails so the source of the email appears legitimate.

.spamIf you are using a web-based email client like Hotmail or Gmail, spam detection is handled exclusively by the web-mail service provider. Your web-based email will have a special folder separate from your inbox where your service provider will put messages that they suspect to be spam. You can review these messages to see if any were accidently labeled as spam. If you use a PC-based client like Outlook or Thunderbird then you can use the features of these programs to detect and filter out spam. There are third-party packages for Outlook that enhance its filtering abilities.

There are some things you can change about the way you read email that will lessen your chances of being harmed by malicious spam. If you do not recognize the sender of the email you receive, be cautious about opening it. An email can be crafted to actually install malware just by viewing the email. If your email client can view all emails as text rather than html, this will lessen the chance of such an attack. Never open any attachment on an email from an unfamiliar sender. Attachments can be disguised to look like a picture file when, in fact, they are a dangerous program. Clicking on the picture attached to your email could launch the malware instead. If your email client supports a mechanism for reporting spam back to your ISP, use it. All the spam you report may help the ISP improve its spam-detecting rules. Be thoughtful about where you give out your email address. Many times, sites collecting email addresses for marketing purposes will use contests or give-aways to collect your email address. If you want to participate in these activities be sure and read the site’s privacy policy to see what they will do with your email address. If the site does not have a privacy policy that is easy to find and read, this is a warning flag about the site’s intentions toward your email address.

Using the tools your email client provides and being thoughtful about the way you treat email and your email address can go a long way toward reducing the amount of spam you receive.

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About johniac

  • Guppusmaximus

    In fact, Spam can be more dangerous than some malware installed that can be removed by doing some investigating in your Task Manger with the support of Spybot S&D.

    Spam can be very fradulent and can look exactly like a real company’s email. I had received one that was from “Citibank” but the address had “citibank0nline” in it. Notice the zero instead of the letter “o”. When I had visited the site none of the links on the page worked and they had a login section….Hmmm, Pretty Tricky, but I am always on the look out for that kind of stuff, so it didn’t work.

    What you can do is use Spamcop(www.spamcop.net) to forward fradulent email or any spam for that matter.They send reports to any or all ISPs’ that have something to do with the sender’s original address. The sender’s original address?? Yup… Because alot of those spammers bounce their vicious emails through mirror address so you can’t tell where they sent it from. Also, you can forward spam to the Federal Trade Commission. Visit their site(www.ftc.gov)to learn more.

    Believe me, these people really do investigate and fight spam so, use these tools but use them with integrity.