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    Spam is unsolicited internet content that is typically sent in bulk for advertising purposes from an unknown sender.

    How prevalent is spam?

    Spam icon.
    Image Credit: Smashicons for

    The first spam message was sent in 1864. It was a telegram advertising teeth whitening. In 1978, the first proto-Internet spam email was sent, an advertisement for a new computer model from the Digital Equipment Corporation.

    Oftentimes, spam is used for illegitimate advertising purposes. And it isn’t always fraudulent or malicious. But it can be a threat when it’s used to spread malware or for activities such as phishing

    Spam consumes hard disk space, ties up memory, wastes bandwidth, and affects server performance. It takes up valuable time, lowers employee productivity, and fills up mailboxes. 

    Spammers keep updating their techniques to trick victims, so it’s important to be aware of their tricks. How does spam work, and what dangers does it pose? Most importantly, how can individuals and businesses protect themselves against it?

    Why is it called spam?

    There is some debate about the source of the term, but the generally accepted version is that spam comes from a song in Monty Pyton’s Flying Circus with the lyric, “Spam spam spam spam, spam spam spam spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam.” In this scene, a group of Vikings in a cafe are singing about the ubiquity of the canned meat product after World War II.

    The rise of chat rooms and Bulletin Board Services (BBSs) in the 1980s expanded the term when some users began repeatedly posting “spam” to consume screen space. This new context gave way to spam being used in reference to the same message being sent repeatedly to prevent other messages from getting attention or to push out other users in the same chat.

    But spam didn’t gain notoriety until the rise of the Internet and instant email communication. It reached pandemic proportions in the early 90s. In 1999, Melissa, the first virus that spread via Word documents attached to emails, wreaked havoc on the digital world, causing $80 million in damages.

    Professional spammers quickly rose to prominence because there wasn’t any anti-spam legislation in place until the early 2000s, when governments started regulating spam. Most countries now have laws that restrict spam.

    In 2003, the U.S. created the CAN-SPAM Act. The laws put restrictions on the sending behavior, the content, and the unsubscribe compliance of all emails. Google and Microsoft, the top email providers, have also worked hard to improve spam filtering technology.

    The efforts may be paying off: by some conservative estimates, about 45% of emails are considered spam.

    Types of spam

    Spam is sometimes defined more broadly as any unsolicited email. However, the advancement of email filtering and privacy laws have led spammers toward other mediums for sending messages, specifically social media. In addition to wasting people’s time, spam also consumes a lot of network bandwidth. A person who creates spam is known as a spammer.

    As mentioned above, the original spam messages came in the form of email and message boards or forums. Email spam messages (also called junk mail) were usually intended for advertising or other types of marketing campaigns, and spam has historically constituted more than two-thirds of all email content since the commercialization of the Internet in the 1990s. Similarly, message boards and forums were often subject to high volumes of spam until moderators and filtering technology became more strict about discerning spam from genuine posts.

    Spam Email

    Spam email is unsolicited, unwanted email sent out in bulk to a random recipient list. Spam email is usually sent for commercial purposes and can be sent by robot networks or infected computers.

    Many businesses still send spam emails, although the practice is considered unethical. The emails often contain adverts for services or products. Very few reputable marketers use spam email to advertise.

    Spam Text Messages

    Spam texts are unsolicited messages. They mainly originate from computers and are sent to phones via an instant messaging account or email address. Spam text messages are cheap to send because they are sent online. 

    How to Stop Spam Texts

    • Block the number sending spam texts. Both Android and iPhone owners can turn on spam blocking or text filtering settings to reduce spam texts.
    • Don’t disclose personal information.
    • Report the scammer. Some cellular carriers allow the reporting of spam texts or robotexts.
    • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It’s illegal to send unsolicited commercial messages to users without their consent.

    Spam Calls

    Research shows that more than 50% of all calls people receive are spam. A spam call is an unsolicited call whose intention is often to scam or trick the recipient. Robocallers (spam callers) often mask spam with local, genuine-looking phone numbers.

    Scammers often use the internet to make countless calls with ease. And even if just a few people fall for their scam, they make enough profit to cover their expenses.

    Social Media Spam

    Social media platforms have yet to institute significant spam filtering tools. Especially for profiles with a large following, direct messaging and replies are often subject to spam messages.

    Some platforms like TikTok, however, have introduced a juxtaposed spam meaning. Posts on these platforms that use the hashtags #spam, #spamforspam, or #sfs indicate the user is inviting other users to “spam” their post with likes in exchange for the same being done to theirs. This is largely attributed to the monetization of social media engagement, so spam in this context has a more positive connotation that is contrasted with historical spam scenarios.

    What does Spam Risk mean?

    The words “Spam Risk” on an incoming call mean that the mobile carrier has detected that the call is from a fraudulent or deceptive source. The best thing to do is ignore the call and not answer it.

    These types of calls can be stopped by enabling the built-in spam call blocking feature on many mobile devices.

    • On Android, go to Settings > Caller ID & Spam. Enable Filter Spam Calls to filter the calls automatically. 
    • On iPhone, go to Settings > Phone > Call Blocking & Identification. Turn on Allow These Apps To Block Calls And Provide Caller ID.

    Why is spam bad?

    • Overloads Communication Systems: Spam blocks communication channels and creates traffic that has to be paid for. It’s also received and processed by mail servers, which are maintained by highly-paid specialists, increasing infrastructure running costs.
    • Infects Computers: Spam can cause significant damage by infecting users’ computers with malicious software, which can damage systems, steal personal information, and consume network resources.
    • Wastes Time: Spam email is one of the biggest causes of inefficiency in the workplace because it has to be deleted manually. An overcrowded inbox can greatly affect productivity in an organization. Each time someone stops what they’re doing to skim through their mail, they waste time that could be spent on more meaningful tasks.
    • Causes Financial Loss: Americans lose $29.8 billion to spam phone scams in a year, and about 19% lose money more than once. About a quarter of all financial losses from online scams originate on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

    How to stop spam

    • Don’t interact with the message. Links or attachments in spam messages could trigger malware that infects computers or phones. 
    • Block the number that’s sending spam text messages.
    • Activate the spam call blocking feature.
    • Mark the emails as spam.
    • Enhance email account security by changing the privacy settings.
    • Use a third-party spam filter for an additional layer of cybersecurity.
    • Unsubscribe from email lists to maintain a low profile online.

    Further reading

    U.S. Government attempts to limit unwanted messages led to 2003’s CAN-SPAM act. | Webopedia
    Watch out for these key email spam terms | Software Pundit
    Spam never rests, even during Covid. | TechRepublic
    Block SMS spam on Android | TechRepublic
    Find more tips on how to avoid getting spammed. | Webopedia
    What to do when it happens anyway. | Webopedia