This article aims to make you more aware of what Spam is, how you may end up receiving it and how to reduce the amount of Spam you receive.

What is Spam?

Spam is unsolicited commercial email. The sending of Spam is an actual business that many individuals undertake in the hope of making lots of money.

How Spammers get your email address

There are many ways for a spammer to acquire your email address. Here is a selection:

  • Spambots trawl the web collecting email addresses from web pages
  • Harvesters gather email addresses from newsgroups and chat rooms
  • Joining mailing lists and acquiring the emails of everyone else on the list
  • Using whois look-ups to acquire email addresses for registered domain names
  • Creating phoney web sites that require registration to capture your emails
  • Dictionary attacks which compile christian names and surnames in email format @ domain names such as yahoo, AOL and hotmail in known formats. (If the email server replies back with unknown user then these are removed from the list)
  • Brute force attacks. Like dictionary attacks except random character combinations are generated instead of names @ domain name
  • Purchasing email lists from companies and other spammers. These lists usually contain the email addresses of people who have opted-in to a newsletter or bought something from a company at some point and entered their email address during the order process. (Check what you are agreeing to before clicking SUBMIT!)

Once they have acquired a collection of new email addresses the next step is to see which ones are still active and in use. They do this by sending email to their address list with the following:

  • Content in HTML format with embedded links that you can follow. Clicking on the links will tell the spammer that your email address is active as your browser will send the information they require
  • Placing a fake unsubscribe/opt-out link in the email. You think you are telling them that you want to be removed from their distribution list but in fact you are confirming your email account's active status. You may in fact receive no more spam from them but that does not mean they will not sell your email address to someone else
  • The use of HTML emails with links to content stored on their web server so when you view the email they know that your account is active
  • Request of a read-receipt
  • Record any auto-vacation responses
  • Wait for a reply
  • Lack of a bounce-back telling them that the email address does not exist

Once they have shortlisted their new active email addresses, they add them to their database which is used to email their spam emails. In all probability they will also sell this list to other spammers.

What you can do to reduce the amount of Spam you receive

First off, go to your favourite search engine and enter your email address. Are there any occurrences of it? If yes then Spammers will have no trouble acquiring your email address as the first place they look is the web. If a search engine spyder can acquire your email address, so can a spammer.

The first thing to do then is to remove all occurrences of your email address from the web. This may not be possible if you are a business or the email is there for people to contact you about content on your web site. You can alter it slightly and add words like emove-this-to-email-me or no-spam making sure that the person wishing to email you knows that they should remove this text in order to obtain your correct email address. This is a popular technique among newsgroup users.

Out of all my email accounts, the one with the least spam is the one that is not listed anywhere on the web. The only spam it receives is from companies with fake opt-out links for their newsletters. These I filter into my trash folder.

The second place spammers look is newsgroups, chat rooms or forums. It is therefore advisable to set up a separate email account for your newsgroup and chat sessions so you can register to use these applications but do not bother to use the account other than when you occasionally empty the contents. Instead allow friends to contact you via a messenger client.

Here are some further tips:

  • Set up an email account for purchasing goods and registering software.
  • Chose to opt-out of newsletters and commercial email from a web site and select no when asked if they can pass your details on to a third party. Make a note of this because some companies ignore your requests and send you spam anyway
  • Switch off vacation notices
  • Disable the returning of read receipts (Windows XP is ideal for this)
  • Disable the previewing of email messages
  • If you allow HTML formatted emails make sure you disable the downloading of images etc from the web
  • Remove Adware and Spyware from your computer
  • Install a personal firewall
  • Install an antivirus tool with email protection
  • Set up a spam filter or use an anti-spam tool

Further reading

There is a lot of information on the internet about Spam and the practice of Spammers worth reading for those of you wishing to know more. The anti-spam movement is growing daily and it is very easy to find huge resources on protecting yourself from Spam, tracing spam, using anti-spam tools and how to target spammers themselves.

The law on Spam is always changing and too detailed for such an introductory article to go into here. The suggestions in this article are designed to help reduce your exposure to spam.

If you have any feedback regarding this article, or you have a suggestion for a new article, or just want to say thanks for the info then feel free to drop me an email at

Article updated: 21-May-2006