Internet Safety Tutorial

Topic #3 - What is Spam

Ever since ARPANet first was created by the Defense Department in the late-1960's, people have used computers to exploit other computers.  With the rapid growth of the internet, this exploitation has taken on a new face, called spam.  

Spam is any e-mail that you receive that comes from sources you did not ask to send you information that is un-wanted.  This definition is quite vague, as some spam can actually be useful and desirable.  I have personally donated to a couple charities that used spam techniques to contact me.  But for our purposes, we'll define spam as being any un-asked for contact by e-mail.

Where does spam come from?

There are several sources of spam.  Some spam originates from newsletter subscriptions you actually signed up for and forgot.  Other spam comes from using your real e-mail address when posting to newsgroups.  The other common method is for companies to buy lists of e-mail addresses that other companies have collected.  

Once they have your e-mail address, a typical spammer adds you to his list of victims and sends you an e-mail offering a service, a product, or a link to a web page.  Since most people discard this e-mail without even looking, he waits to see who responds to his e-mail to move them up to higher lists.  They also use a tactic known as an auto-responder.  An auto-responder will take any incoming message and send a specified message out to each e-mail address on the incoming e-mail.  This propagates more e-mail, and keeps the message alive longer.  

So if most people ignore it, why do people still spam?

Originally, people spammed as a way to promote a web site, a product, or a cause.  Because of the expense involved with site promotion, it was a cheap form of promotion that actually provided some success.  As these successes became apparent to others, they attempted to use the same technique.  This led to an overwhelming increase in the amount of spam being sent, and a greater appreciation for one's own  individual's privacy.  Laws were drawn up to protect people from spam, and the amount of spam being sent by legitimate people with legitimate reasoning plummeted.  

Most of the spam being sent these days are by individuals looking to make quick money.  The products they promote have dwindled down into 3  major groups; Multi-Level Marketing Businesses, Pornography, and Credit Card and Loan Acceptances.. There are more then just these 3, but these seem to be the major 3 business types at this current time.  I have 32 e-mail addresses across 3 web sites, so I know more then my share of spam.  The commonality all these businesses have is high profit margins.  That means even if only a couple people click through, they make their money back.

So why is spam bad?

To some spam is just an annoyance that means nothing.  To others, it is a potential nightmare.  Spam is the major purveyor of viruses on the internet, which threatens your privacy and your security.  Also, any information you give out over the net is another chance for someone to exploit you.  So by giving out your e-mail address, you have given hackers one more piece of the puzzle they need to do their work.

The biggest problem with spam isn't seen by you.  Let's say you get 10 e-mails a day that you could classify as spam.  That is the average per-day volume.  Multiply that by the 200,000,000 people that are on-line in the world today.  Then multiply it by the 4K average storage space per message that these messages take up.  Then double it for the time it takes for you to receive it from your provider, and the amount of time it spends going between your provider and it's origin.  This works out to a staggering 16.38  Trillion bytes of information traveling through the internet pathways from router to router every day.  For those of you that understand the traffic nature of networks, this extra bandwidth worth more then most of us could imagine.  It slows down your local ISP, and although it is a small margin of traffic compared to the over-all internet traffic, it does soak up valuable bandwidth that eats away at your download speeds.

What can I do to protect myself?

My first rule is the same as the rule I preach every day; Lie!  If you don't NEED to give out your e-mail address, don't.  Every e-mail address that is given out gives someone somewhere one extra method to track you down.  The security risks of this are staggering.  This goes for your name, your phone number, your birth date, your social security number, and any other piece of information about you.  Unless you 100% HAVE to tell the truth, don't.

Secondly, get a web-based e-mail account.  This doesn't require your local server to download messages you don't want, saving bandwidth.  Most web-based e-mail systems have built-in virus scanners, protecting your computer.  And finally, when you give out this information instead of your private e-mail in situations you wouldn't normally release that information, it protects your right to privacy. 

Lastly, if you are getting unwanted e-mail there are ways to set up rules within your e-mail program that filter this content out.  It differs by e-mail program, but if you look in the help files they will show you exactly how to do it.  (In Outlook Express go to Message and Create Rule from Message or Block Sender) 

In Conclusion....

Spam is a curious entity.  It can be a nuisance, or it can be a nightmare.  It can provide you one time with a little-known fact that might help you, and never again be more then useless information.  But at it's deepest heart, it is a profit-driven, law-breaking annoyance that we all could live without. 

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