What is spam?

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The term "spam" is Internet slang that refers to unsolicited commercial email (UCE) or unsolicited bulk email (UBE). Some people refer to this kind of communication as junk email to equate it with the paper junk mail that comes through the US Mail. Unsolicited email most often contains advertisements for services or products, but very few reputable marketers use UCE to advertise. The most commonly seen spam includes the following:

  • Phishing scams, a very popular and dangerous form of email fraud
  • Foreign bank scams or advance fee fraud schemes
  • Pyramid schemes, including multilevel marketing (MLM)
  • Other "Get Rich Quick" or "Make Money Fast" (MMF) schemes
  • Quack health products and remedies
  • Ads for pornographic websites
  • Offers of software for collecting email addresses and sending UCE
  • Offers of bulk emailing services for sending UCE
  • Chain letters (see About chain mail)
  • Illegally pirated software ("Warez")

See What is email fraud, and what should I do about it?

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How spammers operate

Unlike junk paper mail, email spam costs the sender very little to send; almost all of the costs are paid by the recipient and the carriers, because the spammer does not have to pay for all the Internet bandwidth tied up in the delivery of the spam. Because they have no incentive to be efficient in their mass emailing, spammers usually don't put much effort into verifying email addresses; they use automatic programs called bots to scour the web and Usenet newsgroups, collecting addresses, or buy them in bulk from other companies. Spammers also guess at addresses using name generation programs, and even send thousands of messages that bounce. In order to get a single response, spammers are willing to send out a thousand email messages or ten thousand; it makes very little difference to them.

Many spam emailers use tricks to get you to read their messages. For example, they use the "Subject:" line to entice you to open the message. Because of the tricks spammers use to send the email to you, your email address may not be visible in the "To:" line of the message, and you almost never see the email addresses of the other people they sent the message to. The worst thing about spam, though, is that the spammers use tricks that help disguise the origin of their messages.

One of the most common tricks is to relay messages through the email server of an innocent third party. This tactic doubles the damages: both the receiving system and the innocent relay system are flooded with spam. And for any mail that gets through, often the flood of complaints goes back to the innocent site that was made to look like the origin of the spam. Many spammers send their spam from a free account from a large ISP such as AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, then abandon the account and open a new one to use for the next assault. Another common trick is to forge the headers of messages, making it appear as though the message originated elsewhere. This is called spoofed email. There are some pieces of information in the full headers that the spammer cannot forge, but even after technical investigation into the source of the message, most often the resulting information leads to a dead end, usually an abandoned account or an innocent mail relay server.

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Why am I getting spam?

Research by the Federal Trade Commission and by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that email addresses posted on websites or in newsgroups attract the most spam. A simple way to find out why you're getting so much spam is to type your email address into a search engine, such as google.com. The number of times your address is found by the search may surprise you. Although your Indiana University personal home page isn't indexed by search engines, departmental pages and other official university websites are.

You might also receive spam if you fill out online forms or correspond with certain companies via email. Although most reputable sites have good privacy policies and won't share your information, it is up to you to decide what sites you trust not to sell your address to spammers.

IU does not and will not sell your information. Moreover, IU will not share your information except in cases when that sharing is consistent with the university's mission or is required by law. For instance, IU has a legal requirement to provide directory information, including email addresses, to the US military for all eligible recruits. This information is required under the terms of the Solomon Amendment, which requires male students to register with the Selective Service to be eligible for Title IV Federal Student Financial Aid.

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Avoiding spam


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Reporting spam

See What should I do when I get spam email?

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More information

  • The spam.abuse.net site is run by a group that has been actively engaged in fighting spam for years. Available to the public since 1996, this site has been referenced as one of the best anti-spam sites available.
  • The Federal Trade Commission also offers information for identifying and avoiding spam.

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This is document afne in the Knowledge Base.
Last modified on 2015-06-22.

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