On the internet, the term "spam" has nothing to do with the familiar canned meat product. So what does spam mean? Spam is a term for junk email and it's important to learn what exactly spam means beyond this definition. No one knows for sure how the term came into common use when talking about email – some suspect a connection to the Monty Python Spam song – but just like junk in your home mailbox, spam gets in the way of the mail you want to read and can occasionally pose a security risk.
Identifying and Avoiding Spam
Every email client and Web mail service provides spam filtering. An automated system looks through messages to weed out the junk, depositing it in a separate folder and ideally leaving only useful messages in your inbox. In practice, some spam dodges the filter as spam emailers have gotten better at avoiding the filter.
Although annoying, most spam consists of harmless advertisements and newsletters. Usually, the best solution is to delete the junk and move on. Your mail service might also offer a "Mark as Junk" option to get rid of a message while helping to improve the filter. Sometimes, due to the content of an email, a legitimate message might be marked as spam. Check through the subject lines in your spam folder every few days to make sure the filter didn't catch any real mail. If it did, press the "Not Spam" or "Not Junk" button to move the email to your inbox.
Viruses and Phishing
Not all junk messages are benign advertisements; some spam emails contain viruses that can infect your computer. As a safety precaution, don't open email attachments you aren't expecting, especially if they come from unfamiliar sources as these may contain viruses that can slow down or otherwise harm your computer. Another type of threat, phishing attacks, attempt to trick you into giving up personal information.
The best defense against phishing is to avoid clicking links in your email and to instead type in the address for the site that the email claims to be from. If an email claims to come from your bank and asks for information, for example, contact your bank directly rather than click a link or reply to the message. Even the "Unsubscribe" link from an unfamiliar source is dangerous – it might notify a spammer that your email address works, opening the door to more junk that will soon arrive in your inbox.
- Scientific American: Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet
- NBC Chicago: Why You Shouldn't "Unsubscribe" From Spam
- Microsoft Safety & Security Center: How to Recognize Phishing Email Messages, Links, or Phone Calls
- SPAM: What Does the SPAM Brand Name Mean?
- FCC: Spam: Unwanted Text Messages and Email
- FTC: CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business