The evolution of spam

FI-Log-On-With-Larry-SchneiderDear Larry,

I get spam messages like everyone else, though every so often I get some that contain junk. They have random characters in the message body that appear totally meaningless. Why is this happening? Is this a problem with my e-mail or a problem with the spammer’s e-mail? —J. M.


Dear J. M.,

The answer is actually neither. In fact, this is a cunning tactic employed by spammers to fool and confuse anti-spam filters and help future spam get through to your inbox.

Frequently referred to as “word salad” or “selfless spam,” this sort of e-mail is a literal example of junk mail. By reducing the effectiveness of spam filtering, the messages are helping all future potential spammers. And this is only one of many new methods spammers are using to prey on innocent computer users everywhere.

Another commonly used strategy is the “embedded web beacon.” In this case, a spammer embeds in its e-mail message a small, hidden image that links back to content on a secret website. When you open the e-mail message and activate the image, your e-mail program follows the link back to the site in order to display the picture.

The result is that the website now has a record of who made the request and when. Most good e-mail programs these days will automatically disable linked pictures embedded in e-mail messages unless you specifically indicate that you want them displayed. If your e-mail program is unable to do this, another option you can use is to turn off the auto-previewing feature, which displays the content of the e-mail when you click on the sender or subject of the message.

Also, beware of spam or even legitimate looking e-mail that asks you to click a link to be taken to the sender’s website. This technique, known as phishing, is employed to make you think your bank, mortgage company, eBay, or PayPal is writing you and requesting confirmation of sensitive information.

You click a link in the e-mail and this in turn takes you to a website that for all intents and purposes looks like the real thing. You’re then requested to enter a password, a Social Security number or other confidential data. To avoid this sort of trap, simply avoid linking to financial and other critical websites via e-mail links.

If your bank really wants you to take care of something on its website, you’re far better off opening your Internet browser and manually typing in the Web address.

Spam and spammers are getting more and more devious and, in some cases, more dangerous. Protect yourself by being an intelligent computer user. You wouldn’t walk down a dark alley at midnight in the city or offer sensitive financial information to a complete stranger on the street. In the same token, don’t surf blindly to unfamiliar or disreputable websites and be careful who you talk to via e-mail or chat rooms.

This is Larry Schneider, logging off.


Larry Schneider is the owner of Accent on Computers, a Greenwich-based consulting firm — now in its 15th year of business — catering to individuals, businesses and professional offices. PC and Mac services include computer setup, training, troubleshooting, virus resolution, networking, Internet, database, and programming. Call 203-625-7575, visit or send email to [email protected]

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