What is spam?

Spam messages are a common nuisance online. Unfortunately, they are not simply a harmless annoy­ance but can pose a real threat to internet users. Read how to detect spam and protect yourself from it.

Originally spam emails got their name from a canned meat product, SPAM, as it was referenced in Monty Python, the iconic British comedy show. Despite its comedic origins, spam is no joke.

Definition of spam email

Spam, also known as junk mail, can take many forms. How­ever, most often spam refers to unsolicited bulk email. In addition to spam emails, similar messages on social media and instant message services are a form of spamming. Spam emails are now­adays so common that most, if not all, internet users have encountered them in one form or another.

Even if most people recognize these messages as spam, it is enough for only a fraction of them to get fooled as cyber criminals can send out spam messages in bulk. As people get better at recognizing messages as spam, criminals also adapt and develop more nuanced methods for deceiving their victims. Not all spam messages are as obviously fake as the so-called Nigerian prince scams. So do not think that only less informed internet users can fall for spam messages.

Different types of spam messages and junk mail

As spam emails are the most common type of junk mail, let’s focus on the different ways criminals use email communication to prey on their victims. Knowing the different methods of spam allows you to better recognize junk mail and avoid getting fooled by it.

Phishing

The goal of phishing emails is to get you to down­load an attachment file, click a link that takes you to a harmful web­site or reveal sensitive information to the sender. Phishing messages can be disguised as some­thing that the victim might find interesting, and in many cases, the email looks like it’s coming from a reliable sender. Smishing messages, on the other hand, have much of the same goal but use text and instant messages instead of email.

Malware spam or malspam

As the name suggests, malware spam is used to infect the recipient’s device with malware, such as trojans, spyware or ransom­ware. The viruses hidden in malware spam can be disguised as attachments, including PDFs, text documents and presentations.

False sender

In order to trick you, the senders of spam try to make it seem like you have received a message from a trust­worthy and legitimate source. By masking the real sender’s identity, cyber criminals can make spam messages look less suspicious to the recipient. Even if it looks like you have received an email from a well-known authority, social media service, the post office or a bank, always make sure that the message is not fake.

IT support scams

Speaking of disguising the message’s sender, a common method is to make it look like the email is coming from IT support. This type of junk mail can be sent in the name of large companies, such as Apple and Micro­soft, claiming that there is some technical issue or your account has been compromised. Your account may be locked if you don’t click a link in the message, or so the message claims. This way cyber criminals can combine a legitimate source with a sense of urgency in order to deceive you. The alarm bells should be ringing especially if IT support asks you for sensitive information, such as pass­words and online banking credentials.

Advertisements

Spam emails can take the form of ads as well. Many of us have sub­scribed to different online news­letters and receive legitimate ads via email daily. If the ad’s offer seems too good to be true, it’s most likely a scam.

Sub­scription traps

Sub­scription traps are a way to mislead consumers and trick them into making long-term sub­scriptions. The victim of a sub­scription trap may not even know they sub­scribed to some­thing until they receive a bill for their supposed order. The terms of such sub­scriptions are vague or non-existent, and canceling the sub­scription is made to be as difficult as possible.

Why are spam emails an issue?

Spam is a common issue for both big and small targets, organizations and individuals. No matter how small someone may look as a potential victim, they can receive spam. By using bulk email, cyber criminals can target large quantities of victims with little effort. On top of that, spamming is cheap, considering the potential returns for the perpetrators. So don’t think that you are not interesting enough as a target of online spamming.

Here are some reasons why both individuals and larger targets should take spam and junk email seriously.

  • Spam can help spread viruses and other malware. Not only are your own devices, files, personal information and privacy at risk, but devices infected with malware can also be used to spread harm to others. Even if you think that you do not have anything worth stealing, cyber criminals will find a way to use you in one way or another.
  • As spam email is sent in bulk, it creates unnecessary traffic and fills your inbox. Urgent emails and important information may be buried under spam in your email folder. Even if you can locate your important files, it will be more difficult if you first have to filter through numerous spammy email messages. If your work email becomes the target of spam, this can reduce your and the entire organization’s productivity.
  • Spam email is a burden for the whole infra­structure. When messages are sent to thousands of recipients simultaneously, this may lead to unnecessary stress for email servers and systems. Your personal email inbox can also get over­loaded as most users have a limited storage capacity in their email. Spam email can be an issue if it need­lessly takes up space that could be used for storing more important messages.

How to defend against spam emails?

Many internet service providers (ISPs) and email services have ways to filter and block spam. How­ever, this may not be enough and other measures are needed as well. Luckily there are some things you can do to direct junk mail into your spam folder instead and recognize spam that has ended up in your inbox.

  1. Analyze suspicious messages. If there is even the slightest chance that an email may in fact be spam, look for signs that can reveal it. Is the email asking you to click on a link or down­load an attachment file? Are there spelling errors? Is the message making out­rageous claims? Is the sender asking for your personal or financial information? If you are still not convinced, check online or go to the sender’s web­site via your browser rather than clicking a link.
  2. When you encounter spam, mark it as such. This way you can teach your email service to better recognize messages as spam in the future. If you find some­thing that is not junk mail in your spam folder mark it as not junk instead.
  3. Use a reliable anti­virus program. Not only are you better protected against the dangers of spam, an anti­virus will help you stay safe online in other ways as well. F‑Secure TOTAL offers complete online protection to keep you safe.
  4. Use a VPN. Although a VPN service does not stop spam, it can prevent cyber criminals from getting your email address in the first place. F‑Secure FREEDOME is a reliable VPN for browsing securely and in private wherever you are.

Stay safe online with F‑Secure TOTAL

Spam is far from the only threat online and you need to be prepared for every­thing cyber criminals may come up with, whether on mobile or desktop. F‑Secure TOTAL offers all you need to stay safe online. Do your online shopping, browse in private, manage all of your pass­words and stream content without worry. Try F‑Secure TOTAL for free today!

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