3 December 2006 (updated)
This guide explains Spam and Phishing, how to avoid junk mail in your e-mail account and how to protect yourself from malicious spammers.
What is Spam?
Spam is the term used to describe junk mail messages sent to your e-mail account.
You may receive an e-mail and not recognise the address of the sender. Alternatively, spam mails can come from people you know, but who are not aware their account is being used by a malicious program to automatically send out junk mail to contacts in their address book.
Someone may forward a spam e-mail to you thinking it is a genuine message - perhaps appearing to be from a charity asking for your help to spread their message to everyone you know.
Like junk mail that comes through your door, spam e-mails often try to encourage you to buy a product or sign up for a service. Often there will be an attached file or a link to a web site, but these may actually be trying to install malicious software on your PC or attempting to get your personal information.
How can I tell if a message is Spam?
Spam mails will usually try to entice you to open them by having titles that promise things like financial rewards, health products, the latest news or gossip, cheap deals or celebrity pictures. Often their titles will contain odd mis-spellings; these are attempts to fool anti-spam programs.
The safest course of action is not to open any e-mail you're not expecting, especially if it has an attached file, or if you do not recognise the name or address of the sender.
If you have opened an e-mail and are trying to determine if it is genuine, you could try copying the subject line or some of the message into a search engine. If other people have mentioned it on any web sites you should be able to find out if it is spam. You should always do a search on any company before you buy from them or send them any money.
What is Phishing?
Phishing is the process of sending out lots of fraudulent spam e-mails with the hope of tricking a few people into giving out their passwords or personal information.
Phishing messages may appear to be from a bank or other financial institution, asking you to confirm your account details by replying to their e-mail or by following a link to a web site.
When you arrive at the fake site, which can often look professional and genuine, you will be asked to type your details into a form and this is where your information will be captured by the criminals behind the phishing.
You may be able to tell if you are not actually on your bank's real web site by looking at the address of the site in your browser.
Remember, your bank will never ask for your passwords or personal information in this way, and if you are in any doubt you should always contact your bank before giving out your details.
How did they get my e-mail address?
It may be that the spammer has just made a lucky guess using software which automatically generates possible e-mail addresses.
If your e-mail address is fairly obvious it can be guessed easily. Try to use combinations of numbers and letters, and the longer or more obscure the address the harder it will be to guess.
When you register on a web site or sign up for things like newsletters and membership accounts you may actually be opening the door to receive e-mail marketing spam from these sites and their partners. Most trustworthy sites should give you the option of not receiving advertising mails when you sign up.
What can I do to prevent Spam?
Because it takes so many different forms, it's virtually impossible to block all spam from appearing in your e-mail account, but there are ways to avoid receiving a lot of it and even help in the fight against the spammers.
Your e-mail provider may have its own system which attempts to filter out a lot of the spam you might otherwise receive. They do this by automatically checking your e-mails for common spam messages, keywords or known spammers' addresses, then place any they find in a separate Spam/Junk/Bulk folder rather than your Inbox.
It is worth having a quick look through your Spam folder occasionally in case some legitimate e-mails have been falsely identified as spam by the system. There is usually an option to move the mail back to your Inbox, or even mark it as Not Spam to help the system identify e-mails that are safe to receive.
Some providers allow you to mark any junk mail you do receive in your Inbox as Spam, to help prevent you getting it again and to stop others receiving it too.
How to protect your e-mail address
You may want to consider having more than one e-mail address: use one address whenever you sign up for anything on the Web, and give your other address only to people you know.
When you do get spam mail, never reply or click a link offering to remove you from their mailing list. This will only confirm your address is real and you will then get even more spam.
Never sign up for any spam e-mail opt-out lists, these are just another attempt to get your email address or money.
It is important that you have up-to-date anti-virus software. If a virus infects your PC it may try to use your address book to spread itself through e-mail spam to all your contacts.
Visit www.getsafeonline.org for more advice about spam prevention and security online.
There is a wide range of anti-spam software available on the Web, including:
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