Stopping Internet Spam
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Internet spam clutters your email and clogs up servers, ultimately costing the entire system, including you, the consumer, billions of dollars in waste.
What is Internet Spam?
Spam email is unsolicited commercial email (UCE)--email sent without your asking that's essentially an advertisement for a product or service. Unlike advertisements you see on billboards or storefronts, however, these are commercial pitches which you, in the end, pay for, through your internet service provider (ISP) bill. Internet spam is not only unwanted, it clogs up bandwidth, often hides malicious software (aka, malware), and can be used for fraudulent purposes.
Not all unwanted email is internet spam, however. Often companies will ask you to give them your email address in order to sign up for their services. Because you've received something in exchange for your email address, you've technically asked them to send you emails regarding their, or related companies', products or services. For example, receiving a bulk email from Banana Republic advertising their new fall line isn't spam if you've purchased from the company before and opted in to their email program, but emails proclaiming a method to "Double Your Income--From Home!" or messages from Nigerian royalty seeking assistance to recover their riches are internet spam.
This article will describe why internet spam exists, problems associated with it, and what steps you can take to reduce the amount of spam in your inbox.
What's the Value in Internet Spam?
For just about every recipient, internet spam is considered a scourge that serves no purpose other than to annoy, bother, and harass you. But to those sending the spam ("spammers"), it's a valuable tool to lure unsuspecting victims into either purchasing some worthless product, or worse, to unleash malware onto your computer. Because spammers work in such high volume, if even 0.1% of their targets reply or purchase something, they're still making a profit just by hitting their "send" button.
It's precisely because spamming is so inexpensive, that companies will "advertise" through internet spam. Companies know that people either block postal junk mail or just toss it out without even looking at it. Junk email is much cheaper, and offers spammers immediate rewards if someone purchases something online.
And for spammers who seek to push malware onto your computer or use phishing techniques to gain access to your private financial information, the value of spamming is even more obvious. The more people who click open spam or give private information, they closer they are to their ultimate goal of defrauding you.
How Do Spammers Get Your Email Address?
Legitimate companies who send bulk email for advertising get your email address through opt-in clauses in their online receipts or store websites. Most larger business realize that spamming is detrimental to their business and will plainly tell you that they do not share your email address with third parties, or if they do they will ask your permission. The best way to confirm that a company won't give your information to anyone else is to check their privacy policies.
These days, it's a requirement that people give out their email addresses to gain services online. Whether it's for a news publication, discount shopping site, or even recipe website, we give out our email addresses with more regularity. But not all of these sites have strict privacy policies and some may sell their email lists to third parties. Although this is becoming less of an occurrence than a few years ago, it's a still prevalent practice.
For every other spammer, there are email "harvesting" programs that seek out email addresses on the internet and add you to their databases. This information can be sold or used by whoever is doing to the harvesting. If your email address pops up on a search engine query (try typing your email address into google and see if it pops up), it's likely you're on someone's email list as well.
How to Prevent Spam
Unfortunately, despite legislation efforts (more on this below) and the limitless ire of spam recipients, stopping internet spam from reaching you once spammers have made contact is an extremely difficult, almost impossible, task. Replying to internet spam in order to request to be taken off the list rarely works because for spammers this merely confirms that your address is "live" and will have the unintended consequence of increasing spam. On the other hand, if you know how you got on a bulk email list (e.g., you opted in while signing into a website), you should feel safe in replying to request the company stop emailing you.
The best advice is not to open any email that looks suspicious or is from someone you don't know. Simply by opening such email, you potentially open yourself up to spammers installing malware onto your system or confirming your live email address.
The most effective method at present to prevent spam is to use filtering software. Fortunately, most email programs now have built-in spam filters and all you need to do is adjust their settings so that "real" email isn't also tossed into the garbage as well.
Another good way of preventing too much spam from reaching you is to give out a "zombie" account to retail sites and websites which require an email address from you. A zombie email account is simply a secondary account which you don't use for personal or business reasons. By giving an account you don't use for anything important, any spam will flow to this account rather than bother you incessantly.
The Cost of Internet Spam
These prevention techniques, however, all cost money, which eventually is borne by you, the consumer. Email filtering software and opening email accounts you don't use cost ISPs a great deal of money (they pay for the filtering software and increased bandwidth required to send and receive spam), which is passing down to consumers through internet access prices.
Some estimate that 90% of email is internet spam, which costs ISPs and other companies up to $10 billion per year. This estimate does not include the direct cost to individuals who respond to spam and are ultimately defrauded by doing so.
Legislation Against Internet Spam
In 2004, a federal law, known as the CAN-SPAM Act, went into effect. This law supersedes the laws of a great majority of states which already had anti-spam laws in place. The Act regulates spam and requires that senders include a valid postal address and a notice stating that the email is for advertising or solicitation purposes and can be opted-out of. Enforcement of the Act is left to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), state attorney generals, and individual ISPs.
CAN-SPAM, however, has had mixed results. By requiring that companies simply give notice that an email is an advertisement or solicitation, it essentially legalized many spammers' efforts. In the eyes of some, the law didn't really prevent spam so much as legitimize it. As long as emails were marked as an advertisement, companies were allowed to send you spam without your asking for it, which is by most accounts, the definition of internet spam. While you could opt out, for the reasons outlined above, many people choose not to open any spam. Consumers can, however, report spammers to the FTC.
Where the law has had an effect is by giving ISPs the power to sue spammers for large damages. ISPs have sued egregious spammers (remember, it's costing ISPs a great deal of money to filter and provide bandwidth for spam), and it's having some effect, though judging by our email inboxes, ISPs aren't winning the war anytime soon.
Ultimately, the burden of preventing (and paying for) spam falls to the consumer. Use prevention techniques to the best of your ability, report spammers to the FTC, and press your local politicians about strengthening anti-spam laws.
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