Fighting and avoiding "Spam", or Unsolicited Publicitary E-mail

What is spam?

If you don't know what spam is, it is – aside from canned meat when spelled “SPAM” – a general name for those irritating publicitary mails with subjects like “E-mail marketing works!”, “Credit card problems? The solution is RIGHT HERE,” “Generic Viagra!”, “UNIVERSITY DIPLOMAS,” or “Are You Getting the Best Rate on Your Mortgage?” Synonyms are ‘junk mail’ and ‘UCE’ (Unsolicited Commercial E-mail). If you still don't know what I am talking about, praise yourself lucky and hope that you'll never receive any, because once you have received one, you can be pretty sure that thousands will follow soon...

The term “spam” originates from a certain sketch by ‘Monty Python's Flying Circus,’ involving the repeating of the word countless times. The first major case of ‘spamming’ was in April 1994, when the same advertising message was sent to thousands of usenet newsgroups. After this incident, the term was more and more commonly used to indicate unwanted commercial mails. When I first started using the internet back in 1996, it was mostly spam-free. I have seen the rise of spam over the years and it was not a pretty sight.

The things advertised for in spam mails range from mortgages to medical products. However, a vast amount of these products are either cheap imitations of the thing they are supposed to be, or they don't even exist. So if you do pay, you are likely to just lose money and either get nothing or total rubbish in return. Taking a drug ordered via a spam message is playing with your health. If there's one thing you should remember from this page, it is the advice to consider all spam mails as total garbage which must be paid no more attention to than required to get rid of it.

Aside from all this, and of course from being slightly up to extremely irritating, the largest problem with spam is that it causes an unbelievable amount of useless network traffic. Spammers send their garbage to millions of addresses, in the hopes that at least a few of those belong to people dumb enough to buy their product. The rest deletes the mail, bounces it back or whatsoever. All wasted network bandwidth, and network bandwidth is not for free.

The problem with spam is that it has a net profit, even when just one single person replies to it in a positive way. The reason is that sending spam doesn't cost a thing, so the worst case scenario is a null operation. A relatively simple proposal to solve this, would be to charge people for sending e-mail. Even a puny 1 (Euro-/Dollar-)cent per e-mail, would already discourage sending a million mails, knowing that only a few percent of those mails will generate revenues. Normal people only send a few dozen mails per day at most, so the costs for them would be negligible. Although these are all very interesting ideas, it is unfortunately very hard to implement them in a waterproof way. The only thing that can be done is making the sending of spam illegal. However, this only will work if there is a strict uniform regulation across the entire world.

Remember, spam only exists because there are people who respond to it. Spread the news and tell everyone you know to ignore spam mails. Replying to spam in whatever way, is asking for more. Ignoring spam is making it die.

Types of spam

Nowadays, there are multiple kinds of unwanted e-mail. While originally they were mostly just attempts to lure people to a site to buy things, soon other, more malicious types emerged. In the rest of this text, I'll use the word “spam” for all types, but here is an overview of the correct names for each type.

Keeping Spam Out of Your Mailbox

When I first set up this page, its main purpose was to provide statistics about spam subjects and senders. The idea was to allow people to use these resources to set up mail filters in an optimal way. Nowadays however, simple mail filters simply won't do because most spammers use random subjects. Moreover, collecting the statistics became intractable due to the sheer volume of spam I started receiving, so they are no longer available. What I recommend is reading the advices below, and if necessary installing a specialised spam filter like SpamAssassin or a Bayesian filter.

A few good advices to avoid having your address added to a Spam list

The short list:

The long list:

Help! I'm receiving massive amounts of Spam, what can I do?

Unfortunately, you will have to learn to live with the fact that you will always keep on receiving junk mail, unless you completely destroy your e-mail account and create a new one with a new address which cannot be easily guessed. There is no remedy against spam, except putting your poor mail account out of its misery by killing it.
I already said this, but I'll repeat because it is so important: Rule N°1 when receiving spam: never reply to it! In most cases your reply will never arrive because the sender's address doesn't exist anyway. In some other cases, another innocent victim will receive your reply. In the rest of the cases where the sender does receive your reply, (s)he will be happy with the attention you have given to him/her and will probably be stimulated to send more junk! It really doesn't matter what's in your reply. Those people see every incoming mail, especially insults, as a begging for more.
Also, don't bounce messages. Some programs allow to send fake “unknown account” messages back to the sender, in the hopes that the spammer will think that your address doesn't exist. Don't do this, because in most cases you are only doubling the amount of useless network traffic. Spammers will likely be able to recognise these fake bounces after a while, and then you're screwed.

If you can't afford destroying your mail account, there are a few things you can do to recognise the inevitable junk mails, so you can delete or even filter them without wasting your time.

Protecting internet forums, guestbooks, and blogs against spambots

This section is intended for people who run a website which contains a forum, guestbook or blog (in other words, for ‘webmasters’). In the early days of the internet, a guestbook was as simple as a CGI script which appended the input from a web form to a webpage. If you would do this today, your guestbook would be stuffed within a few months with utmost garbage. Moreover, the few real persons who would sign the guestbook or leave a message on the forum together with their e-mail address, would be spammed to death after a few weeks. These two phenomena are due to two types of ‘spambots’ that roam the internet today:

©2004-2014 Alexander Thomas. Reproduction of this text is allowed if the source and author are mentioned.