Why do we receive spam emails?

Friday, 10 April, 2020

It’s fair to say we’ve been on a rollercoaster ride with spam this century.

In 2001, only five per cent of global emails were junk mail. By 2011, that figure had rocketed to over 90 per cent. And now it’s hovering at around 55 per cent.

There were genuine concerns in the Noughties that spam might destroy email as a dependable method of communications.

It’s only thanks to the determined efforts of internet service providers, email hosting companies, spam filter providers and anti-malware firms that email has survived.

But what’s the purpose of spam emails? How are they defined? And what can you do to minimise the risk of unwanted mail landing in your inbox?

High, wide and ransom

A spam email can loosely be defined as an unsolicited electronic message, sent to multiple accounts from a person or agency the recipients don’t know.

The main purpose of spam emails has historically been to achieve financial gain at a victim’s expense.

Back in the late 1990s, spam first rose to prominence when AOL customers received messages from supposed AOL employees, requesting their account details.

That sowed the seeds of a spam industry which has now expanded into numerous spheres.

The purpose of spam emails today may be to sell you a cheap watch, to encourage you to visit a disreputable website, or to corrupt your computer for – you guessed it – financial gain.

Spam tends to originate in countries with a relaxed governmental attitude to fraud and cybercrime, such as Russia and China. However, America is also a prolific producer of spam.

The fightback begins

There’s a certain irony to the fact the Millennial spammer’s vehicle of choice – Google’s Gmail – has led the fight against unwanted messaging arriving in user inboxes.

Gmail’s spam filter is widely viewed as a market leader, trapping an estimated 99.9 per cent of junk mail before it reaches a user’s inbox.

The correct identification of unwanted mail involves everything from neural networking to the pre-approval of authorised mail senders, plus detection of potentially spammy words.

Remember all those emails you used to receive for V!agra and R0lexes? These mis-spellings were an attempt to avoid spam filters (though spelling was never a spammer’s strongest suit).

In response, the algorithms which determine a message’s legitimacy were refined to identify mis-spellings, perpetuating a game of cat and mouse which continues to this day.

Mysterious organisations like Spamhaus also conduct forensic studies of billions of mailboxes, identifying both unwanted messages and the senders distributing them.

It’s relatively easy to remove a legitimate firm from Spamhaus’s blacklist, since this non-profit pan-European enterprise has no intention of wrongly blocking a genuine email sender.

So why are messages still reaching our inboxes?

Even the most committed anti-spam organisations struggle with the modern phenomenon of botnets.

Vast armies of corrupted computers are roped together into automated networks. Their processing power and bandwidth is used to distribute spam messages in astonishing volumes.

If your computer suddenly starts running slowly or hogging broadband connectivity, it may have been subsumed into a botnet without you realising.

Antivirus software should detect a botnet’s presence, but even if yours is rescued, there are likely to be millions of other machines being used to distribute spam mail.

However, ISPs and email firms are increasingly adept at blocking mass mailings, reflecting the fact legitimate communications are far more likely to be personal to each recipient.

What can I do to minimise spam?

Firstly, don’t distribute your email address to anyone. Be selective about who you provide it to, and what they’re allowed to do with it.

Secondly, try not to publish it online. Spammers often copy and paste published addresses from lists, directories and social media sites – a process known as scraping.

Thirdly, marking unwanted messages as Spam (rather than simply deleting them) helps your chosen email provider to refine its algorithms and tackle future spam more effectively.

And finally, don’t entrust the job of policing spam to your ISP. Remain vigilant, and never open an unsolicited attachment.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!