"Spam" is Internet slang referring to unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) or unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE). Some people refer to this kind of communication as junk e-mail to equate it with the paper junk mail that comes through the US Mail.

Types of Spam

Unsolicited e-mail most often contains advertisements for services or products, but very few reputable marketers use UCE to advertise. The most commonly seen spam includes the following:

  • Phishing scams, a very popular and dangerous form of e-mail fraud
  • Foreign bank scams or advance fee fraud schemes 
  • Pyramid schemes, including multilevel marketing (MLM) 
  • Other "Get Rich Quick" or "Make Money Fast" (MMF) schemes 
  • Quack health products and remedies 
  • Ads for pornographic websites 
  • Offers of software for collecting e-mail addresses and sending UCE 
  • Offers of bulk e-mailing services for sending UCE 
  • Chain mail
  • Illegally pirated software ("Warez")

How Spammers Operate

Spammers send out a thousand or ten thousand e-mail messages in hopes of to getting a single response. Unlike paper junk mail, e-mail spam costs the spammer very little to send. Spammers buy e-mail addresses in bulk from companies, or use automatic programs called bots to scour the web and Usenet newsgroups to collect e-mail addresses. Spammers also guess at addresses using name generation programs. They have no incentive to be efficient in mass e-mailing, so they rarely put effort into verifying e-mail addresses. As a result, they send thousands of messages that bounce. 

Spammer Tricks

Many spam e-mailers use tricks to get you to read or click links in their messages, such as disgusing the origin of their messages or pretending to be a legitimate organization.

The following are examples of spammer tricks:

  • Relay messages through the e-mail server of an innocent third party
    This tactic doubles the damages: both the receiving system and the innocent relay system are flooded with spam. Any mail that gets through, seems to come from the innocent site that was made to look like the origin of the spam. Many spammers send their spam from a free account from a large ISP such as AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, then abandon the account and open a new one to use for the next assault.
  • Forge the headers of messages, making it appear as though the message originated elsewhere
    This is called spoofed e-mail. There are some pieces of information in the e-mail headers that the spammer cannot forge. Even after technical investigation into the source of the message, most often the resulting information leads to a dead end, usually an abandoned account or an innocent mail relay server.
  • Conceal the "To" field of the e-mail
    The "Subject:" line entices you to open the message, but it's important to check the "To" line. Spammers can hide the "To:" line of the message, and you almost never see the e-mail addresses of the other people they sent the message to.

Why You Get Spam

Research by the Federal Trade Commission and by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that e-mail addresses posted on websites or in newsgroups attract the most spam.

To determine why you're getting so much spam:

  1. Type your e-mail address into a search engine, such as
  2. If your e-mail address is found by the search, the more times it appears usually equates to more spam.

You might also receive spam if you fill out online forms or correspond with certain companies via e-mail. Although most reputable sites have good privacy policies and won't share your information, it is up to you to decide what sites you trust not to sell your address to spammers.

Iowa State will not share your information except in cases when that sharing is consistent with the university's mission or is required by law. 

Avoiding and Managing Spam

Exchange users can avoid receiving spam by enabling Iowa State's spam e-mail tagging system.

Reporting Spam

Forward unwanted or deceptive messages to the following:

  • Federal Trade Commission at - include the complete spam e-mail
  • Your e-mail provider - at the top of the message, state that you're complaining about being spammed
    Note: Some e-mail services have buttons that allow you to mark messages as junk mail or report them spam
  • The sender's e-mail provider, if you can tell who it is - include the entire spam e-mail and say you are complaining about spam
    Note: Most web mail providers and ISPs want to cut off spammers who abuse their system

If you try to unsubscribe from an e-mail list and your request is not honored, file a complaint with the FTC.

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