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What is Spam? How Can I Protect Myself Against It?

When you first start using the Internet, you’ll start to notice that you may be getting a lot of messages from people and businesses you don’t know. If you’re wondering what is spam in an online context, that’s a start.

Spam can take many forms online,, and be intended for a number of malicious things. This article is going to look at the most common forms of spam, where it comes from, and offer ways for you to avoid it so you don’t get spammed yourself!

What is spam? Nothing you want!

To start, spam is very common online. This is because spam works best when many messages can be sent very cheaply and quickly. If you’ve received spam it’s likely because of a small error on your part in giving out your details. It doesn’t usually mean that you’re the victim of a malicious and sophisticated hack.

To put it basically:

Spam is an unwanted message arriving on your computer through a messaging system which you don’t want,
and did not authorize, to have sent to you.

This, of course, is a very broad definition. Spam can come in many forms on many platforms. You can get spam on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms, similar to how you get them in email.

What are the common types of spam?

The most common types of spam are for selling a product. The popular product types are heavily influenced by the online world as they target:

  • Online porn/adult content: Messages from websites for you to visit their site, signup, and watch cams. This can also include ads for penis growth, viagra, and sexual aids.
  • Online and computer tools: Programs, software, hardware, and everything computer related being offered at low prices. So low they can’t be real. So low they AREN’T real: This is spam!
  • Education: The offer of ‘free’ online courses, seminars, webinars, and any sort of online or distance education. You just may learn something important from these types of emails: To never trust spam!

protect yourself against spamOther types of spam you can receive that aren’t quite as digitally inclined include:

  • Finances: Offers for loans, credit cards, bank accounts. Even the notorious ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam falls under this category. If it’s to do with money you shouldn’t trust it. Not even if it’s from your own bank! Go to the bank physically, or their website (not using al ink in the spam!), yourself for information. Accounts being spoofed is a common spamming method.
  • Health and weight loss: ‘Lose 15 pounds in a week!’ says that headline which actually should read ‘We’ll take your money and details so you think you could lose 15 pounds in a week, and then just blame yourself for not being good enough and having a bad metabolism while you eat ice cream every day.’ There will be diet pills, miracle weight loss plans, and 10 minute workout plans. All of which have one thing in common: They don’t work.
  • Political campaigns: Some of this can fall under the ‘not spam’ category depending on your political allegiances. But right around election time expect to see a lot more spam coming your way as politicians desperately try to get your attention.

The worst kind of spam doesn’t do any of these things. It may come wrapped up in one of these types of messages, but it will actually be a delivery tool for a virus. This is when it’s really important to know what spam is as your online security is at stake. Never, ever, download anything fro ma message unless your CERTAIN that it’s 100% ok.

How can I protect myself from online spam?

How is spam going to find you if you don’t tell it where you are? Your first step is always to protect your email address. Don’t give it away to every website that asks for it. Create alias emails that you don’t care about, or verify use throw away email addresses like you can create with Guerilla Mail.

Here are the other things to keep in mind:

  1. Use a VPN when on public WiFi: Also use a trusted VPN provider when signing into your accounts on WiFi networks you don’t personally control. Email addresses can be stolen by hackers sniffing your traffic between your computer and the WiFi network. Your VPN will encrypt your data right from your computer so it can’t be stolen and used for spamming.
  2. Completely ignore spam messages: This means to not reply to it, don’t buy products advertised in it, don’t click on any links, don’t even open it unless you’re sure it’s not spam. If you do any of these things you confirm to the spammer that your email is valid and used, increasing the frequency that they will spam you at.
  3. Turn off media: Hiding malicious code within pictures, GIFs, and video is an old hacker trick. Many email and messaging platforms turn these off automatically if they think it’s a spam message. Gmail does this, and I risked myself (not really, I knew what I was doing) to take the screenshot below detailing that they turn off photos. Outlook allows you to preview messages before you open them, this will protect you against spam as well.
    what is spam
  4. Check the ‘From’ section: If you don’t know who the email is from, you likely don’t need to know what’s in the email. If the ‘From’ and ‘Reply to’ sections are different, you can be sure that it’s spam at this point.
  5. Be careful of spoofing: As I was saying above, spoofing is when a hacker makes it look like an email is coming from someone it isn’t. Sometimes this spam can even look like it’s coming from one of your friends! How will you protect yourself against this kind of spam? If it’s from a friend, and it doesn’t seem like something they’d send from the subject line, contact them and ask. I’ve done this quite a few times and gotten a message back from my friend saying “Nope! I’ve been hacked!”
  6. Disguise your email: When you have to put your email on a website, hide it so that hacker software can’t find it and add it. An example of hiding it would be to write it: myemail {AT} Gmail {DOT} com. A human can figure that out, but a software program has a much harder time. Better yet, share it as a photo and not as text.
  7. Make your email complicated: It can help to have an email address that is a bit more complicated than just your first and last name. Spammers use tools to build email addresses out of nothing and then send email at random to see what works. If your email is easy to guess, it’s easy for a tool to guess it too. Try including your middle name, periods, and numbers.

As you can see by now, protecting yourself from spam comes down to you and the actions you take. What is spam trying to do? It’s trying to catch you when you’re not paying attention, then sell you something you don’t need, direct you to a malicious website, and possibly steal your computer data for more spamming.

If you think spam isn’t worth taking seriously, not only are you putting yourself at risk, but you’re putting everyone you’ve ever emailed at risk. If a spammer gets hold of your email contacts, or spoofs your account, you could be to blame for further hacking and spamming. Take spam seriously, know what it is, and protect yourself.


Feature image via alphaspirit / Shutterstock

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