"Spam" is a term that generally refers to advertisements, warnings of new viruses, or other trivial information sent in bulk over email. Also referred to as "junk email", the point of spam is usually just to irritate people who receive it by cluttering up their email inbox. However, some spam is more insidious, containing phishing scams or attachments that contain viruses or other malicious programs.
A common spam email looks like this:
Unfortunately, spam is difficult to stop entirely, because it is easy to create spam emails, fake email addresses, and mass-mailing lists. This allows "spammers" to quickly use multiple fake email accounts to send out messages to thousands of people at once. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to avoid being buried or burned by spam.
Many modern Web-based email clients, such as Google Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, or Yahoo Mail have built-in features that automatically detect spam emails based on certain shared features, much like how anti-virus software works. They will automatically deflect these emails away from your inbox and into a special "Spam" or "Junk" folder.
In some email clients, you can also add an extra layer of defense by adding your own custom filters, should you find that some spam emails are still getting through. You can look for common patterns that appear in spam emails that make it through the spam filter, and then enter those patterns into your filter to catch the emails that the regular spam filter misses.
To learn how to use the filter system in Gmail, for example, see our Gmail Filters tutorial.
As we discussed in our How to be Safe on the Internet tutorial, there are several common flaws that often appear in spam emails that won't appear in legitimate emails. If you look closely at the content of any email that you receive, especially the sender's email address or any hyperlinks that you are asked to follow, you may be able to spot spam indicators. These include:
Advertising or contests with rewards that seem too good to be true, such as a "miracle diet pill" or a "5-star all-expenses-paid Caribbean cruise"
Numerous obvious spelling or grammar mistakes
Sender addresses or hyperlinks that have spelling mistakes or otherwise look strange (such as "www.amazzzon.com" or "email@example.com"), or that you've never heard of before
Requests for personal information or money, or to follow a hyperlink to a website in order to input personal information (most legitimate companies will NEVER do this, as per their policies)
Any one of these could be a hint that you're dealing with a spam email. Again, be sure to check all emails that you receive thoroughly for these warning signs, including the sender's address as well as the content of the email itself.
Aside from perhaps opening or previewing an email (just to see what it is), once you have more-or-less identified an email as spam, it's generally not a good idea to take any other action with it besides deleting it. That means you shouldn't reply to it, click any links or pictures within it, or open or download any files attached to it.
Even if some spam is just harmless bulk advertising, the people who send it can sometimes track what you do with it. Therefore, they'll be able to tell if you do something with spam email other than deleting it, and that can make your a target for even more spam.
Plus, there are certain dangerous types of spam that can let cyber-criminals steal your personal information or install a malicious program on your computer if you do anything other than delete them. We'll discuss them in greater detail in our Phishing Scams and Advance-Fee Fraud articles.
ADVANCED TIP: Many web-based email clients such as Google Gmail and Microsoft Outlook have the ability to report suspected spam attempts. If you are able to, select a message that you think is spam, and look for an option to click such as "Mark as Spam" or "Mark as Junk".
This will not only delete these emails, but it will often teach your email client to avoid these types of emails for both yourself and other people who use the same client. This means that you'll be helping other people avoid getting their email inboxes clogged with spam!
If you use a spam filter, as outlined in tip #1, be aware that it's not always perfect. It may sometimes classify certain emails that you get as spam -- even though they're not -- due to certain patterns they have that it associates with spam emails. It might not be a bad idea to occasionally check your "Spam" folder in your email client (if you have one) to make sure that any legitimate emails haven't ended up there.
In fact, when some websites send you certain important emails, they will warn you that said emails might be blocked by certain spam filters. Therefore, if you can't find an email that you were supposed to get relatively immediately in your inbox, try checking your spam folder.
In addition, there are some spam filters that you can add exceptions to, in order to teach them that certain emails you receive aren't spam. If you find an email that shouldn’t be marked as spam, see if you can click something like “Move to Inbox” or “Mark as Not Junk.”
For more tips on how to stop spam email, and how to get rid of it on certain mobile devices (such as tablet computers and smart phones), check out this YouTube video by our brand ambassador, Abby Stokes.
Now you know what spam is, and how to identify and get rid of it. Next up, we'll look at some advanced forms of spam that actively try to steal from you and/or harm your computer.
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