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.
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.