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7 Things You Need to Know About Spam Mail

A brief history of everyone’s least favourite type of email.

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Spam is Used for Criminal Activity

By 2000, spam became a mechanism for crime. Spam wasn’t only hawking products of dubious quality and authenticity; it was also luring people in with faulty links that would spread viruses or ask for information, which would lead to identity theft. 

“It’s getting ever more sophisticated,” says Hirst. “They used to be easy to detect because they were so amateur. These days, many of them are professional-looking and they’re getting to be much more targeted.” According to Kaspersky Internet Security, 69.9 per cent of total email traffic sent in 2013 was spam, 23 per cent of which was sent from China.

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Luckily, Canada is Enacting a Law Against Spam

Canada’s anti-spam legislation will launch on July 1st, 2014. The purpose is to stop the most problematic and deceptive forms of spam sent to inboxes, such as spyware, phishing and malware, but the law will apply to all email messaging in general. As a result, any company or individual that communicates through commercial electronic messages (CEM) will have to obtain written or oral consent first.

What happens if you don’t comply with the new law? Companies could wind up facing up to $10 million in penalties. And this doesn’t just apply to email either. Texts, social networking messages and other electronic communications are also covered under the new law. The good news? Companies have up to three years to get consent from their existing customers.

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If Your Email Address is on the Internet, It’s at Risk of Being Harvested

E-mail address harvesters have been around since the early days of the Internet. They troll the web for email addresses that have been posted on sites or message boards and add them to spam lists. It’s strongly discouraged to post your e-mail online if you want to keep your inbox spam-free. “If you must, put it in a format that’s only readable by humans,” says Hirst. 

To do so, spell out the “@” and “.” symbols or post a photo of text with your email address.

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Photo: Thinkstock

A Law First Sent the First Spam Message

Spam dates back nearly two decades. In the mid-1990s, Internet discussions took places through the now dead mechanism called Usenet, which was essentially a text-based message board. A legal firm named Canter and Siegel decided to send out a mass message on this system, advertising their immigration services. “They got an incredible amount of abuse heaped upon them for violating the sanctity of this whole thing” says Graeme Hirst, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto. “That didn’t stop them or stop others from realizing there was an opportunity at advertising, even if it annoyed people.”

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Spam Was a Primary Source for Online Pornography

As email grew more ubiquitous, it became the natural and obvious medium for sending spam. The majority of it was to advertise pornography, since smut wasn’t as commonplace and accessible as it is currently is online. Usually, an e-mail would arrive in an Inbox with a photo and a link on where the user could find more. 

The next industry to cotton onto the medium of spam was pharmaceuticals – both legitimate and bogus retailers – which is why spam about Viagra and, ahem, enlargement drugs tend to clog up inboxes. 

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Nigeria is Home to the Most Famous Spammers

Nigeria made a name for itself thanks to its outlandish spam technique. The format usually involves business propositions, or the alert of a massive fortune from an unknown wealthy relative who had passed, which could only be accessed through a money transfer. “At the back of those there were real people who, when suckers wrote to them, would eventually gain their trust and some kind of big bank transfer,” says Hirst. They’re also known as 419 scams, which refer to the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud.

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Spam Has Ties to Monty Python

The term “spam” came from the infamous Monty Python sketch set in a British diner that revolved around the incessant presence of spam – that of the canned meat variety – on the menu. From there, the word attached itself to the description of junk email, which is typically annoying, persistent and seemingly never-ending.