What is it?
Spam was originally applied to irrelevant posting back in the days of newsgroups (the parent of both blogs and forums). These were mostly commercials - the electronic equivalent of junk mail - and were not popular as they made it hard to follow discussion threads.
There was also a famous Monty Python programme where the repeated singing of the word ‘spam’ blocked every other communication.
Either might provide the loose ‘etymological’ link. Spam was soon the term applied to all bulk email, also known as ‘unsolicited commercial email’ (UCE).
Unsolicited messages would appear in the inbox offering some deal, or enticement, to visit a website. Because this method of marketing was almost costless to the sender, it became so prevalent that it threatened to clog the electronic arteries.
Spam has evolved from an annoying, intrusive method of distributing emails into an untargeted, sinister, high-tech game.
The name "spam" is a trademark of Hormel, Inc so it is always lower case. The company has a sense of humour. See http://www.spam.com/ci/ci_in.htm for their official statement!
How does it work?
In the early days email addresses were harvested by scanning the web or just capturing the emails of visitors. Guest books and discussion forums provided a rich source of email addresses in those naïve and optimistic days! An email address is easy to spot with the @ separator in the middle. Programmes could be written to crawl the web and list the addresses. Such lists used to be openly traded.
There are two types of spammer.
Blocking spam is hard because it is normally the innocent domain that has been taken over. The real culprit has to be tracked and that is much harder.
Why spam is bad
Why does spam continue
Money! According to some research broadcast on the BBC in late 2007, botnets can be hired for $1000 an hour during which the enslaved machines would be expected to send 5-10 million spam emails. And just enough people respond to the spam to make the exercise profitable.
How to limit spam
The big servers such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Lycos are trying hard to block spam and all of them offer a range of options to stop the junk. Take full advantage of these. But if you want any newsletters you will need to leave the door ajar.
Tracking spam requires the correct interpretation of email headers. This is a list of servers the mail has used which you might only see when an email you send bounces back to you. Sadly, these postmarks can be forged, so success is not guaranteed. ‘Bulk senders’ now cover their tracks and relay through a legitimate domain. The best one can hope for is to limit the number of sites that relay spam and get on their case as quickly as possible.
If a spam sender can be traced to the originator, there are normally grounds to close the account, although the spammer can be back in action almost immediately.
What can you do to help?
There are some free programmes you can install to help:
Ever thought about fighting back?
Spam-baiting is a specialist hobby. But it is fun to see how some lateral thinkers are fighting back.
Have a look at some of these baiters