Email and the Rise of Spam
Since its introduction in the early ‘60s, and further development as a universal standard in the late ‘80s, electronic mail or “email”, has become an indispensable global communications tool. And just as with traditional mail before it, people realized soon after email’s introduction that it could be exploited for malicious purposes- both on a one-to-one and perhaps more notably, one-to-many basis.
The rise of spam –unsolicited or undesired email messages, or the modern, more cost-efficient equivalent of traditional “junk mail”– has been nothing short of spectacular. Today, it is estimated that spam accounts for over 66% of all email traffic, rising even higher at certain times of year. Some forms of spam are illegal, others just unethical, but all continue to clog the arteries of the World Wide Web. Rest assured you are not the only one being regularly invited to view your credit report, discover a new miracle diet or, ahem... “Transform yourself into the partner they’ve always dreamed…” Well... you get the picture. And, hopefully not as an attachment.
Spam is distributed for a variety of reasons- to make money from recipients who respond to marketing messages; run phishing scams to obtain financial (bank and credit card) information; access passwords to seize control of computers for use in broader illegal activity; or spread malicious code for any number of other harmful acts.
Fighting Spam: A Unified Approach
Fighting spam is best viewed as a team effort- the shared responsibility of individual users, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), governmental entities, and independent anti-spam security organizations like Spamhaus, who work closely with providers to help identify, monitor and mitigate threats.
Clearly, it is in the interest of ISPs to do everything they can to fight malicious cyber-activity, including spam, as their business success depends upon it. At Web.com, protecting our customers is our highest priority. We take all such activity very seriously and invest significant resources to combat it. This includes employing market-leading technology; recruiting and retaining top IT talent; working closely with law enforcement and independent organizations like Spamhaus; conducting regular research; and keeping our customers informed about new threats, and how to best protect themselves from these threats.
Generally, the most effective means for protecting oneself from spam, from the user-side include:
- Utilizing a reputable ISP. You can learn how to choose a good one and find tools for checking on their reputations and current statuses here.
- Using two email addresses (one for public use in registrations to forums, email lists and other Internet services and one for personal correspondences only)
- Not responding to any spam mail
- Not clicking on “unsubscribe” or any links from unknown sources (which only validates your email is active and exposes you to further harm)
- Keeping your browsers updated
- Using reputable anti-virus software
- And most of all, using strong password protection (You can find a few good tips on creating strong passwords in this article)
The Role of ISPs in Preventing Spam
Information stored on shared servers, the most common type of hosting service used today due to its cost-effectiveness, is susceptible to spam abuse in much the same that way humans are susceptible to viruses. A problem for one can turn into a problem for many, without diligent monitoring and pro-active security measures enabling ISPs to identify compromised servers and end-user computers. ISPs then must act quickly to notify infected users so that they can resolve problems, rather than allowing them to linger.
This type of proactive approach is something that should be appreciated by end-users. Yet, at the same time, it means that email service for some individuals will occasionally be blocked when perceived threats are detected, to prevent infection of the larger community.
Often, end users may have no idea their computers were infected, and a block may come as a surprise. On other occasions, there may even be no abuse at all, but markers that set off false positives, causing suspicion. Regardless, anytime threats are suspected, good ISPs work to identify and shut them down quickly to protect the integrity of the larger system. While this may be inconvenient in the short run, it makes things far better for everyone in the long run.
This relationship mirrors the way that ISPs like Web.com work with organizations like Spamhaus or any other “blocklist” (or “blacklist”) services like them. Just as we might identify a threat emanating from an IP address (“Internet Protocol address” – a unique number assigned to a device that connects to the Internet, functioning like a street address to route information across the web), registered through us; so too may a “blocklist” organization detect the same or other threats, and put blocks on certain parts of our systems to prevent further spread of the issue.
As a result, end users can rest assured that ISP’s intimately understand the inconvenience and disruption to business that such incidents can cause, because the ISPs must deal with it themselves in ways that in many respects, are similar to what their customers do. Even on infrequent occasions, it is never any fun working to track, identify and resolve issues so that your provider can safely “whitelist” you, allowing you to resume normal business; a process that can sometimes require password resets and/or take several days.
The Good News
The flipside to all of this for legitimate businesses and individuals is the peace-of-mind you should have knowing that your provider is operating responsibly, watching out for both your own good and the benefit, and overall health of the larger environment of which we are all a part.
How to Know if Your Mail is Being Blocked and What to Do About it
Finally, if you ever receive a “bounce back” message on your email, it may mean that it was flagged as coming from an IP address that has been blacklisted. While you may not have sent the spam, another user sharing this IP address with you may have, triggering the block. In this event, it is likely that the owner of your IP is already aware of the block and working to fix the problem. However, if you are unsure, feel free to contact your IP owner or email service provider (often, your Internet Service Provider) to ensure speedy resolution.
If your IP address has been blocked, you will be given the opportunity to submit a request for removal of the block by completing a Removal Request Form. If you are not the owner, then you will want to contact your email provider, and request that they submit this form. It is critical that ISPs not allow spam to flourish on their networks, and it is only by working together (ISPs, Individual Users, Watchdog Organizations, and others) that we can help ensure this end.
Tim is Director of Social Media at Web.com. A deeply experienced integrated marketing professional, former creative director and writer who operated his own full-service marketing, branding, public relations and design firm for 15 years, Tim provides a wealth of experience in nearly every area of marketing communications encompassing both new and traditional media.