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Q:  What is spam?

A:  Spam is a term used on the Internet to refer to unsolicited e-mail and Usenet postings.  These messages are usually intended to entice the recipient into buying a product or service of some kind or into participating in a get-rich-quick scheme.  The senders (known as spammers) usually distribute their messages to thousands or even millions of people at once, and they do not ask their recipients beforehand if they want to receive such mail.  Therefore, you will often hear these messages called bulk e-mail, unsolicited e-mail, or junk e-mail.

Q:  Will I receive spam messages?  If so, how many will I get?

A:  You very likely will, sooner or later.  How soon this will happen and how many messages you’ll get depends on how easy it is for spammers to get your e-mail address.  They can do this in several ways:  They can scan Usenet postings, they can copy addresses off World Wide Web pages, they can search chat rooms, and they can gather addresses from mailing lists.  They usually don’t do any of this by hand; there are numerous programs that will quickly search thousands of messages, chat rooms, and Web sites and collect addresses from them.

So, depending on how many spammers get your address, you may only get spammed once every few weeks, or you may get dozens of messages a day.

Q:  So is spam a big problem on the Internet?

A:  Yes, it’s one of the biggest problems the Internet faces today.  This is true for several reasons.

  • Spam costs money.  You may not realize that every e-mail message has a cost associated with it, but it does.  Transporting data across the Internet costs money because access providers must invest in increased transmission and storage capacity as traffic increases.  You can’t easily identify the cost as you can with mailing a letter, but it’s there.  However, since Internet users generally don’t pay more if they transfer more data, spammers can send out millions of messages just as cheaply as they can send one.  The cost is shared by everyone who uses the Internet, including you.
  • If you happen to pay for your access by the hour or minute, then having to sort through all those spam messages can lead to increased time online, which translates into higher monthly bills for you.
  • Spam can slow the performance of the Internet.  Large volumes of spam have been known to slow down e-mail delivery for hours or even days, and it sometimes even causes some computers on the Internet to crash, further impeding the network’s performance.
  • Spam is just plain rude.  Conduct on the Internet is governed by an unwritten set of rules called Netiquette, and one of those rules is that it’s not acceptable to send out unsolicited mass mailings.
Q:  Who sends out these messages?

A:  Spam comes from several sources.  Sometimes a single Internet user will collect a few hundred addresses and send out messages to them.  In other instances, a business may do it to promote a product or service it is selling.  However, the majority of spam comes from companies whose sole business is to send out millions of messages a day for paying customers.

Q:  But I don’t want to get these spam messages.

A:  That’s just it; spammers generally don’t care whether you want to receive their messages or not.  In fact, they know that most people don’t.  However, as stated above, it costs no more to send a million messages than it costs to send one, so there is no financial reason for spammers to target only those who want to receive their messages.  They only need to receive enough positive responses (sales) to cover their costs of operations, so they have an incentive to send as many messages as possible.

Q:  So what if I e-mail them and tell them I don’t want to get their messages?  Will they stop sending them?

A:  Usually this is easier said than done.  Since spammers know that most folks don’t want to get their messages, they will often forge the e-mail header, making it difficult (but not impossible) to determine where the message really came from.  Often the only way to contact the sender is through a telephone number (sometimes a "900" number) or a post office box.

Some spam messages will instruct recipients to send an e-mail message if they don’t want to receive future mailings.  Beware of this tactic, however, since it is often used as a means of finding out who actually reads the spam, resulting in more, not fewer, messages in the future.

Q:  So what can I do to stop spam?

A:  First and foremost, don’t buy anything from spammers.  The only reason they send out all these messages is because it’s profitable.  If people don’t buy anything from them, they’ll eventually go out of business.

There’s another reason not to send money to spammers:  You have no way of knowing if you’ll get anything in return.  Think about it.  If these people go through so much trouble to hide their identity, can they be trusted to conduct business in an honest manner?  You don’t give out your credit card number to someone who calls you up on the phone, and you should be just as wary of someone who contacts you via e-mail.

Q:  Waiting for spammers to go out of business may be a long-term solution, but I want to stop getting all these messages now.  What else can I do?

A:  There are several things you can do.  First, realize that spam is just as much of a headache for those who administer Internet sites as it is for those who receive it, often more so.  So if you can determine whom to complain to, you can often get the spammer’s account closed.  Finding the true origin of the spam can be made more difficult when the mail header is forged, but if you learn how to read these headers, you can usually figure out where the message came from.  Just remember that you should try to report the spam as soon as you receive it, since time is of the essence for two reasons.  First, reporting the spam as soon as possible makes it easier for system administrators to track down the offender, especially when the mail header has been forged.  Second, if you report the spam quickly, the spammer’s account(s) can be closed sooner, making it less likely that he or she will have time to receive e-mail responses and thereby profit from sending the spam.

If the subject of the spam is an illegal activity, such as a pyramid scheme or a phony investment offer, you can also contact the appropriate law enforcement authorities.  Most any activity that is illegal when conducted via the postal service or telephone is also illegal on the Internet, and the authorities will investigate it and file charges if necessary.

Finally, if you feel that legal regulations are necessary to control spam, you can contact your state or federal legislators.  Legislation to regulate or even outlaw spam has been proposed at both the state and federal levels.  Whether such laws will be passed and what form they will take will be determined in large part by the opinions of those who use the Internet, so it is important for users to be heard so that this issue can be addressed in a thoughtful and evenhanded way.

Q:  How can I get more information about spam?

A:  Detailed information about spam and how to deal with it is readily available on the Internet.  Keep in mind that opinions on this issue vary greatly.