What is a Spam? The Top 5 Examples

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What is spam?

Spam is an unsolicited email message that is automatically sent to a large number of addresses at once. Commonly referred to as junk mail, spam is most often used for advertising purposes, although some hackers may also use it to distribute malware. Read on to learn about the most common types of spam and the ways to recognize spam emails.

What you will find out in this article: 

  1. What Is Spam
  2. What Types of Spam Exist
  3. How to Recognize Email Spam
  4. How to Protect Yourself from Spam

Cybercriminals can use email spam to distribute malicious software and link to potentially harmful websites. Don’t take chances with your online safety. Take a look at our comparison of the best antivirus software to keep your computer and data safe.

Tibor Moes

Founder, SoftwareLab

Spam

In a famous 1970 Monty Python sketch, Spam – a brand of tinned meat used to feed the United States troops during the World War II – was described as annoying, repetitive, and impossible to avoid. Almost half a century later, this description perfectly characterizes a whole different kind of spam – email spam.

What Is Spam?

Spam is a generic term for any unsolicited message delivered via electronic messaging systems. Although it can apply to anything from instant messaging and text messaging to internet forums and social media, the term spam is most commonly associated with email messaging. Also known as junk email, email spam involves the sending of messages to multiple addresses at once, usually for advertising purposes.

The main reason why internet marketers use email spam to advertise their products and services is the cost-effectiveness of this method. Rather than investing thousands in marketing campaigns and banner ads on popular websites, they can collect email addresses from public sources as well as their customer databases and send a promotional email to all those addresses in just minutes. If only a small portion of the junk email recipients end up purchasing the product, the marketers will generate a sizable profit.

Not all email spam is commercial. Cybercriminals can also use spamming to distribute malicious software and steal personal data from unsuspecting targets. They do this by including seemingly legitimate links which take the recipients to fake login pages that harvest their data, as well as real-looking websites that host malware. In recent years, hackers have started using email spam and malware to silently take over entire computer networks and form botnets that they can use to attack other networks and websites.

After more than two decades of steady growth, the global spam volume has been declining since 2014. As of April 2018, junk email accounts for just under half of all emails exchanged globally. With billions of messages sent daily, email spam is costing US citizens upwards of $20 billion per year in lost productivity. Although a nuisance, commercial junk email is completely legal as long as the content isn’t fraudulent. On the other hand, malicious spam email is considered cybercrime and can incur fines and prison time.

What Types of Spam Exist?

There are at least a few dozen types of junk mail, ranging from adult content spam that advertises fake Viagra and malicious adult websites to gift and prize spam which informs the recipient about a prize that they have won and includes malicious links where they can claim their prize. Some of the most common types of email spam include the following:

  1. PayPal Spam

Whether or not you use PayPal, you have likely received at least one PayPal spam message. In it, a spammer impersonates PayPal and informs you that you have to log in to your account and authorize some recent changes. If you click on the link included below the message, you will be taken to a fake PayPal login page set up by the spammer to steal your password and withdraw funds from your account.

  1. Returned Mail Spam

When you send an email to a non-existent or inactive address, you will usually receive a delivery fail receipt in your inbox. However, if you get a delivery fail receipt for a message you don’t remember ever sending, it is very likely a fake message. Spammers may also attach a malicious file and try to trick you into opening it by claiming that it contains your original message. If you do, you may unknowingly install malware on your computer, thus giving your attacker access to your browsing history and personal data.

  1. Fake Response Spam

Fake response spam messages use the “Re:” prefix in the subject line to make you believe that you’re receiving a response to an email you may have sent earlier. As soon as you open it, however, you will see a message that has nothing to do with the subject line. Instead, it will usually contain some poorly written promotional offer with calls to action and links that might take you to malicious websites.

  1. Social Media Spam

If you subscribe to email notifications from social media platforms, you may have been tricked by social media spam in the past. Formatted just like the real thing, these emails inform you about new messages, likes, and comments on your social media profile. As with PayPal spam, these messages will also include a link that takes you to a fake login page designed to steal login data from unsuspecting victims.

  1. Rolex Spam

Rolex spam has been around for well over a decade and is perhaps the most common type of junk mail. These emails typically link to malicious websites where – as stated in the messages – the recipients can buy brand new Rolex watches at incredibly low prices. Spammers typically launch these emails around the holiday season, especially around Thanksgiving and Black Friday. That way, potential victims might not be able to tell them apart from genuine promotional emails and may just end up clicking on the link.

    How to Recognize Spam

    Spam messages are often so well-structured that it can be very difficult to distinguish them from legitimate emails. Although there is no surefire way to recognize junk email, the following few tips might help you:

    • Check the spelling and grammar. If a message is poorly written, incorrectly spelled, or seemingly automatically translated from another language, it is very likely a spam message.
    • Look closely at the sender’s address. Spammers will often impersonate reputable institutions in an attempt to gain access to your data. In doing so, they will sometimes create a fake email address that resembles the real one. For example, a PayPal spam email may be sent from an address ending in “@paypai.com”. The difference is almost impossible to notice unless you look very closely at the address, which is exactly what you should do before opening any links.
    • Don’t fall for unrealistic claims. If you receive an offer to buy a brand new Rolex dive watch for, say, $1,000, you’re definitely looking at a spam message, seeing as these watches cost at least ten times that. Whenever you get an email offer to buy a product at an outrageously low price, you should check the non-discounted price of said product to determine if the offer is legit.
    • Inspect the links. Spammers often use URL shorteners to disguise the links to malicious websites that are included in their emails. Some links also redirect to a file rather than an address, which is a tell-tale sign of a deceptive email. Make sure to check each link before opening it.

      How to Protect Yourself from Spam

      There is no way to avoid email spam, but you can prevent it from clogging up your inbox with the right choice of anti-spam software. These programs all have built-in filters that use software intelligence to recognize spam messages and move them from your inbox to the junk folder. Even if these filters miss a message, you can mark it as spam so that all similar emails are automatically filtered out in the future.

      In addition to being used for advertising purposes, many spam messages contain links to malicious websites and software. To ensure optimal safety, you should never click on links sent from unknown addresses or open suspicious-looking attachments. If an email contains links to a login page, you must be sure that the page is legit before entering your personal information. Otherwise, hackers could gain access to your login info and use it to lock you out of your own accounts and impersonate you online.

      Because some spam emails contain links and attachments that automatically download malicious software to your computer without your consent, it is important to use the best antivirus software to keep your data protected. These programs will detect all potential threats and offer easy options to quarantine, recover, or remove infected files. For an extra layer of protection, you can also configure them to run periodic scans and automatically check for database updates.

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