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How to Shield Yourself from Sophisticated Spam

Every internet user finds spam in their inbox. With each new protection developed by software manufacturers, sophisticated spammers develop ever more authentic-seeming scams to get through firewalls and filters. Knowing how to recognize and avoid spam is as important for surfing the web as defensive driving is for operating a car.

Spam Basics

Spam is an unsolicited electronic message, sent out in mass mailings across the internet. Although it is most commonly sent through email, spam may also arrive as a text message, instant message (IM) or through social networking.

More than a nuisance, spam is frequently part of a fraudulent scheme. Many people suffer identity theft after opening a phishing message. Therefore, it is vital that consumers learn how to recognize and avoid it.

How to Recognize Spam

There are a number of warning signs that indicate an unsolicited email message may be spam. Here are a few of the most common:

  • It includes an offer of money
  • You do not know the sender
  • It includes poor grammar or syntax (that is, it is written by someone who is not fluent in English)
  • Keywords are misspelled purposely (to trick the spam filter)
  • It is from a bank or other financial institution with which you do not have an account
  • The offer is too good to be true
  • Any message that has a hyperlink to click that takes you to a page requiring your personal information like passwords, social security numbers and account information

One insider tip for determining if a message is spam: move the mouse over the hyperlink to display its formal address. If this address does not match the name of the purported sender, it is almost certainly spam.

Spam can occur in other places, such as blog and chat posts; for these, look for the following:

  • A long, personal story is posted in an inappropriate context
  • The identical comment is posted on more than one post
  • The comment does not really address the post
  • The comment has many hyperlinks to other websites

How to Avoid Spam

Nearly all email services have a built-in, easy-to-use spam filter, and it should be your first line of defense. Every time you receive an unwanted email, be sure to identify it as spam. The names for unwanted messages vary depending on the email service, so you may have to spend a minute exploring yours. For example, in Hotmail, spam is identified as Junk, but in Gmail, the user clicks on Report Spam.

Email services also offer even more sophisticated filters, which allow the user to block unwanted emails by address, subject, keywords and attachment. These are very helpful, but should be used carefully as they could inadvertently block wanted messages as well.

Spammers frequently get your address from legitimate companies that sell your information. You can avoid some of this by carefully clearing any pre-checked options that otherwise would allow vendors to share your information.

Don't publish your email address on chat rooms or other web pages. Take advantage of options to disguise your address, such as are routinely provided on Craigslist.

The best security systems offer anti-spyware filtering and provide a costly but effective way of reducing spam.

Common Spam

There is an infinite variety of insidious spam. Here are a few of the more common types on the web today:

Banking: The victim receives a message from either their bank or an automated clearinghouse informing them that their transaction had a snag, and they need to follow the enclosed link to fix it. Merely clicking the hyperlink may download malware to the computer, or the accessed site will request account and personal information.

Impersonating Officials: In 2011 over 39 consumers were complaining each day that they were receiving spam sent from an important government official. With one iteration, the spam included a bit of malware with a pop-up that notified the victim that their computer hosted child pornography, and that unless a fine was paid, the FBI would block the victim's internet access.

Social Media: This scam begins with a spam from someone who seems to know the victim. When the victim accesses the email's link, they are directed to upgrade a Flash player or otherwise, click again. The second click downloads a malware worm that gives the scammer access to the victim's social media accounts, including personal data.

Work-at-Home:Cybercriminals send unsolicited offers of work-at-home employment opportunities and then offer to pay the victim through direct deposit or an online bank. The criminals will use the purported employee's account to either steal or launder money.

Savvy internet users need to proactively research the latest scams in order to protect themselves and their families. Check out these helpful links for more information:

Anti-Spyware Coalition
Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights
Internet Crime Complaint Center