The Point of Spam

Fellow WordPress.com blogger Lorelle recently put up a post regarding spam on blogs, especially in the comments. Her post not only talked about spam but also about how it’s countered, especially on WordPress blogs. Most WordPress blogs, especially here on WordPress.com use a system called Akismet. However since Akismet is a web-based service, it can go down, and should it do so for a long time, many blogs accross the world would be inundated by thousands of spam comments. Lorelle also gives a few alternatives to Akismet that bloggers might want to try out.

Lorelle’s post reminded me about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while: what is the point of spam? Originally, you could put spam in the same category as leaflets in the mailbox, promotional phone calls and door to door salesmen. However nowadays the things my spam tries to sell me are things no sane person would actually consider buying over the internet (Viagra for $2.88 a pill anybody?) Of course there are the occassional smart ones (Windows Vista Ultimate for $20 would interest a lot of people), but seriously, most people already know about all these sorts of things to fall for them. But what really iritates me the most is spam that is composed of random words or sentenced put together for no reason whatsoever. They don’t try to sell anything and don’t have any links to click or attachments to open. Perhaps that’s the reason why they get through my otherwise impressive Gmail spam filter. I suppose this might be some sort of “sniffer spam” just to check out if the email address actually exists, but I wander what’s supposed to happen after they find out that my email does exist.

Then there are the “will you keep an insanely large amount of money in your bank account for me”. Made famous by Nigerian spammers, these claim to be from underage people in war torn African nations, whose parents are dead and now they have chosen you out of some 6 billion+ people on the planet, to keep their cash safe for a while. And of course, you get a fair bit to make your trouble worthwhile. This was quite popular for a while and apparently a number of people fell for it (and ended up losing a lot money after giving away account details). But like the viagra tablets, most people know about this now and I think that it’s about time that these spammers stopped (or at least came up with something new). Unfortunately this type of spam still gets through my spam filter every once in a while, probably due to the fact that to a computer it would look like any other long email.

Of course, there is still some spam that is not irritating, but downright malicious. The first thing that comes to mind are ones carrying malicious software. However a good spam filter and anti-virus software should keep most of these at bay. Far more dangerous and harder to stop are the “phishing emails”. Essentially they look like proper business email from bona fide sources (mostly a bank or major credit card). They tell you that something is wrong with your account and that you need to log on and fix it. They give you a link to a login page that looks perfectly agreeable. Only problem is that the whole thing is a fake, the login page is decided to gather your information so that your passwords and PINs can be safely copied and used to extract every cent that you have in your account. What’s the giveaway? The page you’re whisked away to will have an unusual or extremely long URL, not the one you usually use to log in. I haved yet received one of these, but my mother received one from someone claiming to be a popular online payment system. Luckily she never makes online payments so she promptly deleted it.

Much of the spam that you get will be simply irritating and time consuming. Make sure you have a good spam filter set up, and if it isn’t working as it should, it might be time for a change or an upgrade. If you use Windows, make sure you have a good anti-virus. AVG has a good free offering and I’ve never had problems with it. But if you have virus problems regularly, investing in a paid software would be a wise choice. Unfortunately, much of the phishing and other fraudulent spam can get through filters. The only defense for the moment is good old commonsense. Emails from your banks or credit cards will generally have graphical banners and contact details. Most such companies will never actually ask for your details online and even if they do, they will almost certainly point you to your default login page. Even if you are fairly certain regarding authenticity, you might want to call up the help line and ask a company representative if the email is real. And never, ever agree to keep someone else’s money, no matter how large or small the amount or how much they offer you. And any email telling you that you’ve won a 7-digit amount of money, is most certainly false, especially is they repeatedly emphasis that you should keep absolutely quiet about it. Most spam may be pointless, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

One thought on “The Point of Spam”

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