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Is It Spam?

Several people who've come to us for help, thinking they're being harassed, have actually just been getting spam. Spam, while annoying, isn't harassment. How can you tell the difference?

First we need to talk about spam. It's also referred to as unsolicited commercial email (UCE) or unsoliicited bulk email (UBE). It's advertisements mass-emailed to people who probably have no interest at all in whatever is being advertised. The product is unimportant - it might be a pornographic web site, a Bible CD, a travel agency's services, mortgage loans, credit repair, or a pyramid scheme. If it is unsolicited, it's spam.

Where do spammers get the email addresses? They're harvested from usenet posts, web pages, mailing lists, domain registrations, message boards, ICQ, AOL profiles, etc. Spammers (those who send spam) sell their lists to each other, so once an email address is on any spammer's list, you can expect that it will be on other's lists soon - and probably forever. Even if your email address has never been in any of those places, sometimes spammers send use lists of words, names, and nicknames combined with lists of domain names to send messages to email addresses that might be valid. So if, for instance, you have an email address of cat@somedomain.foo, you're going to get lots of spam at that address even if you never give it to a single soul. Owners of most professional websites today use a contact form that keeps the contact email address in a php file, server-side, and away from the spammer.

Is this stuff directed at any recipient personally? Nope. I know, the messages often say "here's the information you requested" or "congratulations! you've won!" or indicate that you subscribed to their mailing list. They're lying. That's what spammers do.

Sometimes people do sign up for a mailing list (referred to as permission based opt-in or confirmed email marketing) and forget that they've done so. Sometimes a harasser will subscribe his victim to mailing lists as part of the harassment. But these days, any decent mailing list is set up so that you can't subscribe anyone without getting a confirmation message from the subscriber's email address. so it's much harder to harass someone this way than it used to be.

How can you tell if you're getting spam or harassing email? First of all, spam will usually not have your email address in the TO: field. It's been blind-copied to thousands of email addresses. Second, the address in the FROM: field is almost always meaningless. Spammers know that people don't want their ads, so they usually forge a fake address in the FROM: field.

Also, spam isn't sent through anonymous remailers - all the ones we have encountered are set up only to send one message at a time. This message can't be sent through most of the web-based email services like Hotmail or Yahoo, either. There may be a fake Yahoo or Hotmail address in the FROM: field, but if you actually read the headers, you'll find that the email came from another system. A message that was really sent through a web-based mail service or an anonymous remailer is extremely unlikely to be spam.

Most spammers have something in the email claiming that if you send a message to an email address they provide, or go to a web site URL they list, they'll remove you from their lists. Don't ever bother doing that, as it's simply a way for them to know for sure that your address is valid - they won't remove you from their lists anyway, and they will be able to charge more for selling your confirmed address to other spammers! But messages that don't include some mention of a removal method are less likely to be spam. The other reason for not following links can be surmised from the "tool tip text" that pops up as you move your mouse over the hyperlink. The words may say getrichquickperson.moo, but the hyperlink tool tip text will reveal the actual location. Never follow these links. Never give out your financial information to them. If you have memberships with organizations or banks, go to that organization's website directly instead of following the link on a spam email.

So . . . if the messages you're receiving don't seem like spam, please go to our article on respond.html If you are being spammed, though, here are some resources to help you:

Boycott Internet Spam! is a good place for learning more about why people hate junk email so much.

Spamcop - help in tracking and reporting spam and FAQs with lots of general information.

Forum for Responsible and Ethical Email

The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email is taking a political approach to fighting spam, trying to get legislation to outlaw it.

Junkbuster gets into much more than spam on the net, adding junk postal mail, telemarketing, and so on.

JunkEmail.org is a new site from the Center for Democracy and Technologyand Voters Telecommunication Watch.

Spam-L is not a site about fighting spam, but about a mailing list on the subject. There are links to many good sites as well, though.

SenderBase.Org is the world's leading email traffic monitoring network, designed to help email administrators research senders, identify legitimate sources of email and stop threats such as spam and viruses. (Thanks to greynomad.)

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