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Email Spam definition

Email Spam definition

E-mail spam, also known as junk e-mail, is a subset of spam that involves nearly identical messages sent to numerous recipients by e-mail. A common synonym for spam is unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE). Definitions of spam usually include the aspects that email is unsolicited and sent in bulk. "UCE" refers specifically to unsolicited commercial e-mail.

E-mail spam has steadily, even exponentially grown since the early 1990s to several billion messages a day. The total volume of spam (over 100 billion emails per day as of April 2008) has leveled off slightly in recent years, and is no longer growing exponentially. The amount received by most e-mail users has decreased, mostly because of better filtering. About 80% of all spam is sent by fewer than 200 spammers. Botnets, networks of virus-infected computers, are used to send about 80% of spam. Since the cost of the spam is borne mostly by the recipient, it is effectively postage due advertising.

The legal status of spam varies from one jurisdiction to another. In the United States, spam was declared to be legal by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 provided the message adheres to certain specifications. ISPs have attempted to recover the cost of spam through lawsuits against spammers, although they have been mostly unsuccessful in collecting damages despite winning in court.

Spammers collect e-mail addresses from chatrooms, websites, customer lists, newsgroups, and viruses which harvest users' address books, and are sold to other spammers. Much of spam is sent to invalid e-mail addresses. Spam averages 78% of all e-mail sent.

Overview

From the beginning of the Internet (the ARPANET), sending of junk e-mail has been prohibited, enforced by the Terms of Service/Acceptable Use Policy (ToS/AUP) of internet service providers (ISPs) and peer pressure. Even with a thousand users junk e-mail for advertising is not tenable, and with a million users it is not only impractical, but also expensive. It is estimated that spam cost businesses on the order of $100 billion in 2007. As the scale of the spam problem has grown, ISPs and the public have turned to government for relief from spam, which has failed to materialize.

Types

Spam has several definitions, varying by the source.

  • Unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE)—unsolicited e-mail, sent in large quantities.
  • Unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE)—this more restrictive definition is used by regulators whose mandate is to regulate commerce, such as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
 

Spamvertised sites

Many spam e-mails contain URLs to a website or websites. According to a Commtouch report in June 2004, "only five countries are hosting 99.68% of the global spammer websites", of which the foremost is China, hosting 73.58% of all web sites referred to within spam.

Most common products advertised

According to information compiled by Spam-Filter-Review.com, E-mail spam for 2006 can be broken down as follows.

E-Mail Spam by Category:

  • Products25%
  • Financial20%
  • Adult19%
  • Scams9%
  • Health7%
  • Internet7%
  • Leisure6%
  • Spiritual4%
  • Other3%

"Pills, porn and poker" sums up the most common products advertised in spam. Others include replica watches.

419 scams

Advance fee fraud spam such as the Nigerian "419" scam may be sent by a single individual from a cyber cafe in a developing country. Organized "spam gangs" operating from Russia or eastern Europe share many features in common with other forms of organized crime, including turf battles and revenge killings.

Phishing

Spam is also a medium for fraudsters to scam users to enter personal information on fake Web sites using e-mail forged to look like it is from a bank or other organization such as PayPal. This is known as phishing. Spear-phishing is targeted phishing, using known information about the recipient, such as making it look like it comes from their employer.

Spam techniques

Appending

If a marketer has one database containing names, addresses, and telephone numbers of prospective customers, they can pay to have their database matched against an external database containing email addresses. The company then has the means to send email to persons who have not requested email, which may include persons who have deliberately withheld their email address.

Image spam

Image spam is an obfuscating method in which the text of the message is stored as a GIF or JPEG image and displayed in the email. This prevents text based spam filters from detecting and blocking spam messages. Image spam is currently used largely to advertise "pump and dump" stocks.

Often, image spam contains nonsensical, computer-generated text which simply annoys the reader. However, new technology in some programs try to read the images by attempting to find text in these images. They are not very accurate, and sometimes filter out innocent images of products like a box that has words on it.

A newer technique, however, is to use an animated GIF image that does not contain clear text in its initial frame, or to contort the shapes of letters in the image (as in CAPTCHA) to avoid detection by OCR tools.

Blank spam

Blank spam is spam lacking a payload advertisement. Often the message body is missing altogether, as well as the subject line. Still, it fits the definition of spam because of its nature as bulk and unsolicited email.

Blank spam may be originated in different ways, either intentional or unintentionally:

  • Blank spam can have been sent in a directory harvest attack, a form of dictionary attack for gathering valid addresses from an email service provider. Since the goal in such an attack is to use the bounces to separate invalid addresses from the valid ones, the spammer may dispense with most elements of the header and the entire message body, and still accomplish his or her goals.
  • Blank spam may also occur when a spammer forgets or otherwise fails to add the payload when he or she sets up the spam run.
  • Often blank spam headers appear truncated, suggesting that computer glitches may have contributed to this problem—from poorly-written spam software to shoddy relay servers, or any problems that may truncate header lines from the message body.
  • Some spam may appear to be blank when in fact it is not. An example of this is the VBS.Davinia.B email worm which propagates through messages that have no subject line and appears blank, when in fact it uses HTML code to download other files.

Backscatter spam

Backscatter is a side-effect of e-mail spam, viruses and worms, where email servers receiving spam and other mail send bounce messages to an innocent party. This occurs because the original message's envelope sender is forged to contain the e-mail address of the victim. A very large proportion of such e-mail is sent with a forged From: header, matching the envelope sender.

Since these messages were not solicited by the recipients, are substantially similar to each other, and are delivered in bulk quantities, they qualify as unsolicited bulk email or spam. As such, systems that generate e-mail backscatter can end up being listed on various DNSBLs and be in violation of internet service providers' Terms of Service.

Legality

Sending spam violates the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) of almost all Internet Service Providers. Providers vary in their willingness or ability to enforce their AUP. Some actively enforce their terms and terminate spammers' accounts without warning. Some ISPs lack adequate personnel or technical skills for enforcement, while others may be reluctant to enforce restrictive terms against profitable customers.

As the recipient directly bears the cost of delivery, storage, and processing, one could regard spam as the electronic equivalent of "postage-due" junk mail. Due to the low cost of sending unsolicited e-mail and the potential profit entailed, some believe that only strict legal enforcement can stop junk e-mail. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) argues "Today, much of the spam volume is sent by career criminals and malicious hackers who won't stop until they're all rounded up and put in jail."

Canada

The Government of Canada has introduced anti-spam legislation called the Electronic Commerce Protection Act at the House of Commons to fight spam.

European Union and Australia

Several countries have passed laws that specifically target spam, notably Australia and all the countries of the European Union.

Article 13 of the European Union Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications (2002/58/EC) provides that the EU member states shall take appropriate measures to ensure that unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing are not allowed either without the consent of the subscribers concerned or in respect of subscribers who do not wish to receive these communications, the choice between these options to be determined by national legislation.

In Australia, the relevant legislation is the Spam Act 2003 which covers some types of e-mail and phone spam, which took effect on 11 April 2004. The Spam Act provides that "Unsolicited commercial electronic messages must not be sent," which is an opt-in requirement. This contrasts with the U.S. CAN-SPAM act, which is opt-out (i.e., companies are free to send spam until the recipient directs the sender not to). Penalties are up to 10,000 penalty units, or 2,000 penalty units for a person other than a body corporate.

United States

In the United States, most states enacted anti-spam laws during the late 1990s and early 2000s. These have since been pre-empted by the less restrictive CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

Spam is legally permissible according to the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 provided it follows certain criteria: a truthful subject line, no false information in the technical headers or sender address, and other minor requirements. If the spam fails to comply with any of these requirements it is illegal. Aggravated or accelerated penalties apply if the spammer harvested the email addresses using methods described earlier.

A review of the effectiveness of CAN-SPAM in 2005 by the Federal Trade Commission (the agency charged with CAN-SPAM enforcement) stated that the amount of sexually explicit spam had significantly decreased since 2003 and the total volume had begun to level off. Senator Conrad Burns, a principal sponsor, noted that "Enforcement is key regarding the CAN-SPAM legislation." In 2004 less than 1% of spam complied with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

Effectiveness

Legislative efforts to curb spam have been ineffective or counter-productive. For example, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 requires that each message include a means to "opt out" (i.e., decline future e-mail from the same source). It is widely believed that responding to opt-out requests is unwise, as this merely confirms to the spammer that they have reached an active e-mail account. To the extent this is true, the CAN-SPAM Act's opt-out provisions are counter-productive in two ways: first, recipients who are aware of the potential risks of opting out will decline to do so; second, attempts to opt-out will provide spammers with useful information on their targets. A 2002 study by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that about 16% of web sites tested with opt-out requests continued to spam.

Other laws

Accessing privately owned computer resources without the owner's permission counts as illegal under computer crime statutes in most nations. Deliberate spreading of computer viruses is also illegal in the United States and elsewhere. Thus, some common behaviors of spammers are criminal regardless of the legality of spamming per se. Even before the advent of laws specifically banning or regulating spamming, spammers were successfully prosecuted under computer fraud and abuse laws for wrongfully using others' computers.

The use of botnets can be perceived as theft. The spammer consumes a zombie owner's bandwidth and resources without any cost. In addition, spam is perceived as theft of services. The receiving SMTP servers consume significant amounts of system resources dealing with this unwanted traffic. As a result, service providers have to spend large amounts of money to make their systems capable of handling these amounts of email. Such costs are inevitably passed on to the service providers' customers.

Other laws, not only those related to spam, have been used to prosecute alleged spammers. For example, Alan Ralsky was indicted on stock fraud charges in January 2008, and Robert Soloway plead guilty to charges of mail fraud, fraud in connection with electronic mail, and failing to file a tax return in March 2008.

Deception and fraud

Spammers may engage in deliberate fraud to send out their messages. Spammers often use false names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information to set up "disposable" accounts at various Internet service providers. They also often use falsified or stolen credit card numbers to pay for these accounts. This allows them to move quickly from one account to the next as the host ISPs discover and shut down each one.

Senders may go to great lengths to conceal the origin of their messages. Large companies may hire another firm to send their messages so that complaints or blocking of email falls on a third party. Others engage in spoofing of e-mail addresses (much easier than IP address spoofing). The e-mail protocol (SMTP) has no authentication by default, so the spammer can pretend to originate a message apparently from any e-mail address. To prevent this, some ISPs and domains require the use of SMTP-AUTH, allowing positive identification of the specific account from which an e-mail originates.

Senders cannot completely spoof e-mail delivery chains (the 'Received' header), since the receiving mailserver records the actual connection from the last mailserver's IP address. To counter this, some spammers forge additional delivery headers to make it appear as if the e-mail had previously traversed many legitimate servers.

Spoofing can have serious consequences for legitimate e-mail users. Not only can their e-mail inboxes get clogged up with "undeliverable" e-mails in addition to volumes of spam, they can mistakenly be identified as a spammer. Not only may they receive irate e-mail from spam victims, but (if spam victims report the e-mail address owner to the ISP, for example) a naive ISP may terminate their service for spamming.

Theft of service

Spammers frequently seek out and make use of vulnerable third-party systems such as open mail relays and open proxy servers. SMTP forwards mail from one server to another—mail servers that ISPs run commonly require some form of authentication to ensure that the user is a customer of that ISP. Open relays, however, do not properly check who is using the mail server and pass all mail to the destination address, making it harder to track down spammers.

Increasingly, spammers use networks of malware-infected PCs (zombies) to send their spam. Zombie networks are also known as Botnets (such zombifying malware is known as a bot, short for robot). In June 2006, an estimated 80% of e-mail spam was sent by zombie PCs, an increase of 30% from the prior year. An estimated 55 billion e-mail spam were sent each day in June 2006, an increase of 25 billion per day from June 2005.

Statistics and estimates

The growth of e-mail spam

Spam is growing, with no signs of abating. The amount of spam users see in their mailboxes is just the tip of the iceberg, since spammers' lists often contain a large percentage of invalid addresses and many spam filters simply delete or reject "obvious spam".

In absolute numbers

1978 - An e-mail spam advertising a DEC product presentation is sent by Gary Thuerk to 600 addresses, which was all the users of that time's ARPANET, though software limitations meant only slightly more than half of the intended recipients actually received it.

2002 - 2.4 billion per day
2004 - 11 billion per day
2005 - (June) 30 billion per day
2006 - (June) 55 billion per day
2007 - (February) 90 billion per day
2007 - (June) 100 billion per day

As a percentage of the total volume of e-mail

More than 97% of all e-mails sent over the net are unwanted, according to a Microsoft security report.

MAAWG estimates that 85% of incoming mail is "abusive email", as of the second half of 2007. The sample size for the MAAWG's study was over 100 million mailboxes.

Spamhaus estimates that 90% of incoming email traffic is spam in North America, Europe or Australasia.[40] By June 2008 96.5% of e-mail received by businesses was spam.

Highest amount of spam received

According to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft founder Bill Gates receives four million e-mails per year, most of them spam. (This was originally incorrectly reported as "per day".)

At the same time Jef Poskanzer, owner of the domain name acme.com, was receiving over one million spam emails per day.

Cost of spam

A 2004 survey estimated that lost productivity costs Internet users in the United States $21.58 billion annually, while another reported the cost at $17 billion, up from $11 billion in 2003. In 2004, the worldwide productivity cost of spam has been estimated to be $50 billion in 2005. An estimate of the percentage cost borne by the sender of marketing junk mail (snail mail) is 88%, whereas in 2001 one spam was estimated to cost $0.10 for the receiver and $0.00001 (0.01% of the cost) for the sender.

Origin of spam

Origin or source of spam refers to the geographical location of the computer from which the spam is sent; it is not the country where the spammer resides, nor the country that hosts the spamvertised site. Due to the international nature of spam, the spammer, the hijacked spam-sending computer, the spamvertised server, and the user target of the spam are all often located in different countries. As much as 80% of spam received by Internet users in North America and Europe can be traced to fewer than 200 spammers.

In terms of volume of spam:

According to Sophos, the major sources of spam in the fourth quarter of 2008 (October to December) were:

  • The United States (the origin of 19.8% of spam messages, up from 18.9% in Q3)
  • China (9.9%, up from 5.4%)
  • Russia (6.4%, down from 8.3%)
  • Brazil (6.3%, up from 4.5%)
  • Turkey (4.4%, down from 8.2%)

When grouped by continents, spam comes mostly from:

  • Asia (37.8%, down from 39.8%)
  • North America (23.6%, up from 21.8%)
  • Europe (23.4%, down from 23.9%)
  • South America (12.9%, down from 13.2%)

In terms of number of IP addresses: The Spamhaus Project (which measures spam sources in terms of number of IP addresses used for spamming, rather than volume of spam sent) ranks the top three as the United States, China, and Russia, followed by Japan, Canada, and South Korea.

In terms of networks: As of 5 June 2007, the three networks hosting the most spammers are Verizon, AT&T, and VSNL International. Verizon inherited many of these spam sources from its acquisition of MCI, specifically through the UUNet subsidiary of MCI, which Verizon subsequently renamed Verizon Business.

Spam in culture

The often rambling and incomprehensible nature of spam has led to an underground culture, with video tribute on the video sharing service YouTube, cartoons based on spam titles (Spamusement!) as well as spam blogs such as My Pet Spam, Delightful Spam and The Spam Hunter Diaries.

Anti-spam techniques

The U.S. Department of Energy Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) has provided specific countermeasures against electronic mail spamming.

Some popular methods for filtering and refusing spam include e-mail filtering based on the content of the e-mail, DNS-based blackhole lists (DNSBL), greylisting, spamtraps, Enforcing technical requirements of e-mail (SMTP), checksumming systems to detect bulk email, and by putting some sort of cost on the sender via a Proof-of-work system or a micropayment. Each method has strengths and weaknesses and each is controversial due to its weaknesses. For example, one company offers for "removing some spamtrap and honeypot addresses" from email lists, defeating the ability of those methods for identifying spammers.

Anti-spam techniques should not be employed on abuse email addresses, as is commonly the case. The result of this is that when people attempt to report spam to a host, the spam message is caught in the spam filter and the host remains unaware that their network is being exploited by spammers.

How spammers operate

Gathering of addresses

In order to send spam, spammers need to obtain the e-mail addresses of the intended recipients. To this end, both spammers themselves and list merchants gather huge lists of potential e-mail addresses. Since spam is, by definition, unsolicited, this address harvesting is done without the consent (and sometimes against the expressed will) of the address owners. As a consequence, spammers' address lists are inaccurate. A single spam run may target tens of millions of possible addresses — many of which are invalid, malformed, or undeliverable.

Sometimes, if the sent spam is "bounced" or sent back to the sender by various programs that eliminate spam, or if the recipient clicks on an unsubscribe link, that may cause that email address to be marked as "valid", which is interpreted by the spammer as "send me more".

Delivering spam messages

Obfuscating message content

Many spam-filtering techniques work by searching for patterns in the headers or bodies of messages. For instance, a user may decide that all e-mail they receive with the word "Viagra" in the subject line is spam, and instruct their mail program to automatically delete all such messages. To defeat such filters, the spammer may intentionally misspell commonly-filtered words or insert other characters, often in a style similar to leetspeak, as in the following examples: V1agra, Via'gra, [email protected], vi*gra, \/iagra. This also allows for many different ways to express a given work, making identifying them all more difficult for filter software. For example, using most common variations, it is possible to spell "Viagra" in over 1.3 * 1021 different ways.

The principle of this method is to leave the word readable to humans (who can easily recognize the intended word for such misspellings), but not likely to be recognized by a literal computer program. This is only somewhat effective, because modern filter patterns have been designed to recognize blacklisted terms in the various iterations of misspelling. Other filters target the actual obfuscation methods, such as the non-standard use of punctuation or numerals into unusual places. Similarly, HTML-based e-mail gives the spammer more tools to obfuscate text. Inserting HTML comments between letters can foil some filters, as can including text made invisible by setting the font color to white on a white background, or shrinking the font size to the smallest fine print. Another common ploy involves presenting the text as an image, which is either sent along or loaded from a remote server. This can be foiled by not permitting an e-mail-program to load images.

As Bayesian filtering has become popular as a spam-filtering technique, spammers have started using methods to weaken it. To a rough approximation, Bayesian filters rely on word probabilities. If a message contains many words which are only used in spam, and few which are never used in spam, it is likely to be spam. To weaken Bayesian filters, some spammers, alongside the sales pitch, now include lines of irrelevant, random words, in a technique known as Bayesian poisoning. A variant on this tactic may be borrowed from the Usenet abuser known as "Hipcrime" -- to include passages from books taken from Project Gutenberg, or nonsense sentences generated with "dissociated press" algorithms. Randomly generated phrases can create spoetry (spam poetry) or spam art.

Another method used to masquerade spam as legitimate messages is the use of autogenerated sender names in the From: field, ranging from realistic ones such as "Jackie F. Bird" to (either by mistake or intentionally) bizarre attention-grabbing names such as "Sloppiest U. Epiglottis" or "Attentively E. Behavioral". Return addresses are also routinely auto-generated, often using unsuspecting domain owners' legitimate domain names, leading some users to blame the innocent domain owners. Blocking lists use IP addresses rather than sender domain names, as these are more accurate. A mail purporting to be from example.com can be seen to be faked by looking for the originating IP address in the email's headers; also Sender Policy Framework, for example, helps by stating that a certain domain will only send email from certain IP addresses.

Spam can also be hidden inside a fake "Undelivered mail notification" which looks like the failure notices sent by a mail transfer agent (a "MAILER-DAEMON") when it encounters an error.

Spam-support services

A number of other online activities and business practices are considered by anti-spam activists to be connected to spamming. These are sometimes termed spam-support services: business services, other than the actual sending of spam itself, which permit the spammer to continue operating. Spam-support services can include processing orders for goods advertised in spam, hosting Web sites or DNS records referenced in spam messages, or a number of specific services as follows:

Some Internet hosting firms advertise bulk-friendly or bulletproof hosting. This means that, unlike most ISPs, they will not terminate a customer for spamming. These hosting firms operate as clients of larger ISPs, and many have eventually been taken offline by these larger ISPs as a result of complaints regarding spam activity. Thus, while a firm may advertise bulletproof hosting, it is ultimately unable to deliver without the connivance of its upstream ISP. However, some spammers have managed to get what is called a pink contract (see below) — a contract with the ISP that allows them to spam without being disconnected.

A few companies produce spamware, or software designed for spammers. Spamware varies widely, but may include the ability to import thousands of addresses, to generate random addresses, to insert fraudulent headers into messages, to use dozens or hundreds of mail servers simultaneously, and to make use of open relays. The sale of spamware is illegal in eight U.S. states.

So-called millions CDs are commonly advertised in spam. These are CD-ROMs purportedly containing lists of e-mail addresses, for use in sending spam to these addresses. Such lists are also sold directly online, frequently with the false claim that the owners of the listed addresses have requested (or "opted in") to be included. Such lists often contain invalid addresses. In recent years, these have fallen almost entirely out of use due to the low quality e-mail addresses available on them, and because some e-mail lists exceed 20GB in size. The amount you can fit on a CD is no longer substantial.

A number of DNS blacklists (DNSBLs), including the MAPS RBL, Spamhaus SBL, SORBS and SPEWS, target the providers of spam-support services as well as spammers. DNSBLs blacklist IPs or ranges of IPs to persuade ISPs to terminate services with known customers who are spammers or resell to spammers.

Related vocabulary

Unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE)
A synonym for e-mail spam.
Unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE)

Spam promoting a commercial service or product. This is the most common type of spam, but it excludes spam which are hoaxes (e.g. virus warnings), political advocacy, religious messages and chain letters sent by a person to many other people. The term UCE may be most common in the USA.

Pink contract

A pink contract is a service contract offered by an ISP which offers bulk e-mail service to spamming clients, in violation of that ISP's publicly posted acceptable use policy.

Spamvertising

Spamvertising is advertising through the medium of spam.

Opt-in, confirmed opt-in, double opt-in, opt-out

Opt-in, confirmed opt-in, double opt-in, opt-out refers to whether the people on a mailing list are given the option to be put in, or taken out, of the list. Confirmation (and "double", in marketing speak) refers to an email address transmitted eg. through a web form being confirmed to actually request joining a mailing list, instead of being added to the list without verification.

Final, Ultimate Solution for the Spam Problem (FUSSP)

An ironic reference to naïve developers who believe they have invented the perfect spam filter, which will stop all spam from reaching users' inboxes while accidentally deleting no legitimate email.

Bacn

Bacn is a rarely used term to refer to e-mail sent to a user who at one time subscribed to a mailing list - not unsolicited, but also not personal.

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Our expertise lies in the following robust applications.

We work with BigCommerce We work with Joomla We work with Seblod We work with CS-Cart We work with Drupal We work with Fabrik We work with Mautic We work with WordPress We work with Planyo We work with Nginx We work with Apache Software Foundation We work with MySQL We work with Google Cloud

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