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The many faces of spam

The term spam comes from the famous 1970 Monty Python sketch in which a café customer is told that it’s impossible to order anything that doesn’t include Hormel’s canned meat product Spam. During the sketch, a chorus of Vikings repeatedly chants the word Spam, eventually drowning out the conversation. In the 1980s, the term was applied to attacks on electronic bulletin boards and in chat rooms, in which a user or a group of users attempted to drown out others by posting long strings of text (this text sometimes included material from the original Spam sketch).

Commercial e-mail spamming began in the mid-1990s, as people flocked to e-mail and the Web, and its reach and volume have been growing ever since. In 1994, the first large-scale spam was sent to 6,000 newsgroups, thus reaching millions of people who accessed those newsgroups. In June 2005, 30 billion pieces of spam per day were sent via e-mail. It’s estimated that this number had tripled by February 2007. It’s also estimated that approximately 85 percent of the e-mail sent today is spam. Typically, over half of the e-mail you receive is spam.

E-mail spam comes in a variety of forms and formats.

Advertising Spam The most common forms of advertising spam are come-ons for pornography Web sites, prescription drugs, sexual-enhancement potions, printer ink cartridges, counterfeit items (including name-brand watches and popular software titles), mortgage offers, phony diplomas, and penny stocks.

Advance-Fee Fraud Typified by the infamous Nigerian scam, advance-fee spam is purportedly sent from a foreign government minister or a relative of a wealthy person, for instance, and offers a percentage of a large sum of money if only you’d pass along the kind of private information that results in your bank account being cleaned out.

Phishing Messages that claim to be from sources you trust—a bank, your broker, or an online service, for example—are phishing scams. These messages ask that you go to an authentic-looking Web site and submit a password, an account number, a credit card number, or some other bit of private information in order to continue using the service or to update your account. The information you give to these sites is most often used for the purposes of identity theft and for accessing your bank accounts and credit card accounts.

Virus Spam Messages that contain Windows viruses as attachments are often sent by infected PCs without the knowledge of the computer’s owner. Some of these viruses turn unwilling PCs into zombies —computers that are later used to relay spam or conduct denial-of-service attacks (in which masses of data are directed at an Internet domain with the intent of overwhelming its servers and shutting it down). While the viruses contained in these messages won’t affect your Mac directly (unless you receive one while running Windows), they can clutter up your inbox just like any other junk mail, and they can damage Windows computers if you forward messages containing them to Windows users.

Web Bugs Spammers began creating HTML spam, in part, to include Web bugs—invisible HTML image tags that report that a message has been read (this also confirms that a message has reached a viable e-mail address, which can be sold to other spammers). Spam messages may be formatted as plain text, Rich Text (text that supports more-extensive formatting than plain text), HTML, and attached graphics files. Moving to more graphic forms of spam is not done to make the messages visually appealing. Image spam is now used to thwart antispam utilities that search for text but not graphics within the body of an e-mail message.

How to avoid spam

Spammers have countless ways to obtain e-mail addresses, including scouring corporate directories, pulling e-mail addresses from the address books of virus-infected PCs, and obtaining addresses from supposedly private databases. In some cases, they simply make addresses up, hoping to hit a small percentage of viable ones. It costs spammers very little to send millions of copies of a message. If the majority of those messages go to invalid addresses, it’s no skin off a spammer’s nose. As long as spammers get the low yield they need to make money (in other words, suckers who respond to their pitches) they’re satisfied.

Given this onslaught of spam, what should we do to protect ourselves? Start by swearing to never, ever reply to a message that includes an unsolicited advertisement. Also ignore removal instructions in spam messages. This is simply a trick to help spammers learn that your address is active. Additionally, refrain from clicking on links that take you to Web sites that seek personal information.

You can also use some of the features built into your e-mail client. For example, all e-mail clients include rules or filters that let you sort your messages by sender. Specifically, if a message’s sender is not in your address book, the message can be deemed junk and sent to a folder you’ve reserved for spam. This kind of whitelist filtering is effective if you receive e-mail from a select group of people. You can also configure your e-mail client to filter specific kinds of attachments—files that end with .scr and .pif, for example, which are invariably attached to spam. And to protect against Web bugs, you can turn off the automatic display of images in HTML messages.

You can also let your e-mail client take a swing at your mail with its own built-in spam filter. While its tools can certainly help reduce the amount of spam you receive, they don’t do as good a job as some third-party programs designed specifically to destroy spam.

[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

Statistics Window: SpamSieve mostly hides in the background, but you can check its work by pulling up its Statistics window.
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