Spam, scams and confidence tricks

What is spam

Spam – unsolicited email – accounts for over 70% of email traffic. Although it doesn’t directly cost us anything, spam consumes electricity on our computers and at ISPs. Of course it’s Mother Earth who foots the biggest bill as spam is estimated to account for 20 million tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere each year. And then there’s the time we spend sorting through it all and the irritation, oh such irritation.

There are several different types of spam including unsolicited marketing of everything from printer cartridges to penis enlargement through to downright fraud which is sometimes called phishing or 419 scams. There are also the dangerous viruses and spyware bugs lurking in spam that can wreak havoc on computers and networks.

It’s big business for the spammers because it costs them nothing to send out millions of emails and such big numbers mean that even if one person out of every ten thousand recipients falls into their trap, that’s a hundred victims for each million sent out. And did you know that you may unwittingly help the spammers broadcast their mail? Click on a phoney link on a website or email and you may infect your computer with a piece of code that turns your computer into a zombie email broadcaster, part of a botnet of similarly infected machines.

Some years ago the sixty or so computers of the tiny population of Pitcairn Island were infected and Pitcairn became the source of millions of spam emails which were sent out to addresses all over the world. The term ‘snowshoe’ is currently being used to describe the latest version of widely distributed botnets.

How do you guard against spam?

First – and you have already heard this several times before – make sure your computer or your network has up to date anti-virus software running continuously. Your ISP probably has anti-spam filtering running to block it before it reaches you but if you suffer from an unruly amount of spam it’s worth installing your own filtering software. There are plenty of effective programs around, take a look at MailWasher, SPAMfighter, and Cloudmark. Lavasoft’s free Adaware program will block spyware and other nasties that install themselves without you realising.
If you are worried about having your outbound mail inadvertently intercepted by spam filters read this informative article from MailChimp.

Avoiding infections

One insidious virus displays a message that looks like it’s a Windows system message informing you that you have been infected with a virus and that you will be able to clean and protect you PC if you download (at a price) some (pretty rubbishy) anti-virus software from a particular website. If this happens to you search out information on Google about clearing the virus yourself and follow the instructions. It’s a chore but it works and costs nothing.

Never click on a link on a suspect email and remember that images can contain links. If you are uncertain if it is genuine, hover your mouse cursor over the link and you should be able to see if it links to a bona fide address or something spurious. Anything which links to a .exe file should be avoided like the plague because these are executable files which will load software onto your hard drive or network. The same applies to links or attachments with .zip in them unless you know exactly who sent the message.

PayPal and UBS along with well known high street banks have had their branding copied and spammers send out dangerous mimics that look and read as good as the real thing. Such organisations try to block the counterfeiters by using domain key identifiers or digital signatures but the crooks appear to be one step ahead. Another old chestnut: never, ever reveal your username, password or pin number via email or telephone.

Should you click unsubscribe?

I am suspicious of unsubscribe links unless the mail is from a company I know. Clicking on any link on email confirms that your address is real and working. It is mandatory to include an unsubscribe link on any marketing email communication under the Privacy & Electronic Communications EC Directive but quite often these don’t work or take you to a confusing web page that wants you to fill in a lengthy form in order to get your name removed.

And if you want to avoid a flood of more benign marketing emails just take a little more care to check – or uncheck – those boxes when you agree to a firm’s terms and conditions. They often make reference to ‘similar businesses’ or ‘other members of their group’ which – they think – gives them the OK to bombard you with special offers for products and services you never knew you needed.

Software crawlers scan the internet all the time to harvest email addresses. If you have a website use a program like the free Captcha to mask your email address – it creates those funny-looking letters and numbers for re-typing based on the idea that machines aren’t as clever as humans at reading.

No one is immune

The recent hacking of celebrity pictures from Apple Cloud and yet another theft of personal data from eBay is topical proof that even the largest corporations are not immune to the activities of cyber criminals. Sony and other games companies have been targeted and gamesters are seen as ripe for having their pockets picked. So us mortals can only do the best we can to stay safe but it looks like we are going to be subjected to spam and other attacks on our privacy for quite some time.