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Is It Spam?

Several people who've come to us for help, thinking they're being harassed, have actually just been getting spam. Spam, while annoying, isn't harassment. How can you tell the difference?

First we need to talk about spam. It's also referred to as unsolicited commercial email (UCE) or unsolicited bulk email (UBE). It's advertisements mass-emailed to people who probably have no interest at all in whatever is being advertised. The product is unimportant - it might be a pornographic web site, a Bible CD, a travel agency's services, mortgage loans, credit repair, or a pyramid scheme.

Where do spammers get the email addresses? They're harvested from usenet posts, web pages, mailing lists, domain registrations, message boards, ICQ, AOL profiles, etc. Spammers (those who send spam) sell their lists to each other, so once an email address is on any spammer's list, you can expect that it will be on other's lists soon - and probably forever. And even if your email address hasn't ever been in any of those places, sometimes spammers send use lists of words, names, and nicknames combined with lists of domain names to send messages to email addresses that might be valid. So if, for instance, you have an email address of, you're going to get lots of spam at that address even if you never give it to a single soul.

Is this stuff directed at any recipient personally? Nope. I know, the messages often say "here's the information you requested" or "congratulations! you've won!" or indicate that you subscribed to their mailing list. They're lying. That's what spammers do.

Don't get me wrong - sometimes people do sign up for a mailing list and forget that they've done so. And sometimes a harasser will subscribe his victim to mailing lists as part of the harassment. But these days, any decent mailing list is set up so that you can't subscribe anyone without getting a confirmation message from the subscriber's email address (it's called "confirmed opt-in"), so it's much harder to harass someone this way than it used to be.

How can you tell if you're getting spam or harassing email? First, spam won't usually have your email address in the TO: field. It's been blind-copied to thousands of email addresses. Second, the address in the FROM: field is almost always meaningless. Spammers know that people don't want their ads, so they usually forge a fake address in the FROM: field.

Also, spam isn't sent through anonymous remailers - all of them that I've encountered, at least, are only set up to send one message at a time. It can't be sent through most of the web-based email services like Hotmail or Yahoo, either. There may be a fake Yahoo or Hotmail address in the FROM: field, but if you actually read the headers, you'll find that it came from another system. A message that was really sent through a web-based mail service or an anonymous remailer is extremely unlikely to be spam.

And finally, most spammers have something in the email claiming that if you send a message to an email address they provide, or go to a web site URL they list, they'll remove you from their lists. Don't ever bother doing that, as it's simply a way for them to know for sure that your address is valid - they won't remove you from their lists anyway, and they will be able to charge more for selling your confirmed address to other spammers! But messages that don't include some mention of a removal method are less likely to be spam.

So . . . if the messages you're receiving don't seem like spam, please go to our article on Responding to Online Harassment. If you are being spammed, though, here are some resources to help you:


Other pages to review:

Are You Being Harrassed?

Is it spam?

Have you received an email from a lottery, Nigeria, Paypal, eBay, your bank, other banking institutions, etc?

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