Spam (unsolicited commercial email) is in essence junk mail from companies trying to sell you something you have not requested. However spam is not only limited to emails only; it also includes those annoying phone calls from direct marketing companies and commercial bulk cell phone text messages.
Even if you’re careful about giving out your details, there are various ways in which spammers may manage to pick up your trail. Here are a few:
1. Mailing list companies: Many companies share their mailing lists with their affiliate companies, which is perfectly legal. And there are also companies such as list.co.za that specialise in selling mailing lists to other companies and service providers.
2. Compromised computers: Your computer may be infected with a virus carrying malware (malicious software), which harvests information such as email addresses to send spam to or even your internet banking details. If your computer is infected with malware, everyone you ever emailed, and everyone who’s ever emailed you, will have their email address sent to spammers. If your computer is infected with any malware, there won’t be any obvious signs. But if you receive emails advertising, for example, Viagra or replica watches, it is probably a result of this sort of thing.
3. Internet harvesting: Spammers can also harvest your contact details through the use of software (spam bots) that have been specifically designed to trawl the internet in search of email addresses posted on websites and social networking sites. To avoid your email address being picked up by this type of software, try obscuring it. For example, use maryATyourprovider.com instead of using the ‘@’ symbol.
4. Manual harvesting: Although more labour intensive, some spammers will even go as far as collecting contact details manually from emails with multiple recipients. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use BCC (blind carbon copy) when sending an email to multiple people unless those people already all know each other.
5. Gifts you can do without: If you’ve received an e-card for your birthday or a special occasion, chances are that’s how you landed on a spam list. Although there are many reputable e-card companies that are not connected to spammers, your friends need to send only one card from a website that’s not reputable for your details to be harvested.
How To Protect Yourself
1. Trustworthy mail provider: If you are interested in opening a personal email account with an online mail provider, make sure to opt for one that offers a good spam-filtering system. Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail are all trustworthy choices to go for.
2 Be mindful of who you’ve dealt with in the past. If you receive communication from a brand you’ve never given your contact details too you should be on high alert. Recently Wonga South Africa’s brand was used as the veneer of a phishing scam that targeted web users with a phoney too good to be true loan offer. The interesting thing to note being that many of those that were duped by this had no previous affiliation to the Wonga brand at all. The data leak was from a different source and yet some of these non-customers were so blinded by the dazzle of the loan bait a little too much to think critically about how and where this ‘brand’ got their details from.
3. Ignore: Delete a dodgy message straight away. Spammers may be able to track your email address when you open an HTML spam message while online, or if you unsubscribe using a link provided in the message, or reply to the spam, or if you buy from them.
4. Feedback forms: If you have your own website, encourage visitors to communicate with you through a feedback form instead of providing them with your own email address.
5. Antivirus software: Invest in a trusted antivirus and anti-spam software package. Although it won’t eliminate spam completely, it will aid in protecting your computer against malware. Also, scan your computer with a malware scanner. Go to www.malwarebytes.org and download a free scanner.
6. Firewalls: Some internet service providers (ISPs) operate anti-spam firewalls that run every incoming message through a series of checks to determine if it looks like spam. Check that your ISP does this.
For more details on how you can actively identify a potential phishing scam take a look at this resource by Yahoo.