How Spam and Phishing Work (and How To Handle It)
As the internet has evolved, the threat of cybercrime continues to rise with hackers constantly looking for new ways to steal information, extort money, and wreak havoc on businesses and individuals.
Although major data breaches dominate the news today, most instances of cyber-attacks occur on a smaller scale.
Despite the omnipresence of social media, email remains the primary form of digital communication for the vast majority of people online. It’s used for personal correspondence, team collaboration, tracking business transactions, and marketing.
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Because of its high global profile, hackers aren’t shy about using email as an attack platform.
In this guide, we’ll dive into the mechanisms of how spam and phishing work, as well as the best tactics for staying safe with email.
The danger of spam
In many ways, email still serves as a good metaphor for physical mail. Every day, people’s mailboxes are jammed full of advertisements, appeals, and other marketing material that they did not explicitly request.
The junk mail trend spread to email soon after the protocol was launched in the early days of the internet. By the way, these stats show snail mail volume might not have declined as much as you thought. Still a lot of junk landing in your real-world box too.
It’s important to classify the different types of unwanted email
Messages from retailers or mailing lists can be considered junk if the recipient has no interest in the content. However, if you at one time provided your email address to the sender, then it explains why you are receiving the message.
True spam is classified as an incoming message sent to many recipients who have never contacted the sender’s organization in the past. This is usually a sign that your email address has been included in a data breach or sold to advertisers by another company.
Phishing is the most dangerous form of junk and is considered a full cyberattack. With a phishing scam, the sender includes attachments or links and then tries to convince the user to click on them. The end result usually involves a piece of malware or a rogue website that will try to obtain passwords, credit card numbers, or other private information.
Marking messages as junk
How you choose to deal with spam and junk mail is dependent on the email provider you use. With a company, inboxes are typically managed through a Microsoft Exchange server or a cloud-based platform like Office Online. Personal accounts on Gmail, Outlook, and iCloud all offer the same basic junk mail solutions.
As a mailbox owner, you have the ability to mark specific messages or senders as spam. This concept is known as a blacklist. Once an email address has been added to the blacklist, it means the email server will stop delivering similar content in the future.
However, this process requires manual effort and is not ideal, especially since many phishing scams appear to be legitimate messages and can trick even tech-savvy people.
How to use spam whitelists
In reality, the vast majority of junk email is blocked before it ever reaches your inbox. Google claims its systems catch 99.9% of spam. This process has become extremely accurate and efficient in recent years thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Popular email servers handle billions of email messages on a daily basis. With such a large set of data, algorithms can be developed to identify patterns in what types of messages should be blocked. That technology is then fed into a filter tool, which scans all incoming content on the mail servers and calculates the probability that it is spam.
Some mechanisms on spam filters are straightforward. For example, if a message contains certain keywords involving adult content or shady business practices, then it will receive a high spam score. More advanced systems look deeper into the sender’s IP address and delivery history to understand whether they are reputable or not.
In some cases, you might be concerned that your email provider’s junk filter is actually working too well and preventing you from receiving valid messages. Fortunately, email servers allow for users to create whitelists and specify certain addresses that should always be allowed through the filter.
Tips as a sender and receiver
Sending: One common scenario that occurs for new businesses and start-ups is that they’ll gather a large database of leads and email addresses and then blast that mailing list with a tsunami of marketing content. More often than not, the advertising campaign goes poorly with a large portion of the messages returned with a bounce notification. You can thank spam filters for that.
The problem is that your standard email software suite may already be branded as a spammer for allowing high volume commercial messaging from their IP address. Alternatively, they might place very strict limits on the number of messages you can send, effectively making them unusable for business marketing.
Your chances of a successful campaign will likely increase by using an email marketing service that allows you to automate outreach efforts to both established and potential customers with a deliverability rate that exceeds standard options like Gmail. The top email services – particularly yours truly – allow segmentation and analysis of your list to a granular level that almost guarantees better results.
Receiving: When scanning through your own personal inbox, the best way to stay safe is to be skeptical of every single message you receive. Just because you often receive email alerts from your bank or credit card company, it does not mean that every new message with a similar subject line is legitimate. Many hackers often try to emulate companies in an effort to trick users into divulging information.
Users have to be especially careful when dealing with emails that contain attachments or links. One wrong click can result in malware being installed on your computer and even spread outward on the network. A strong virus scanner helps but a better strategy is to delete and block any message that seems suspicious, dangerous, or unfamiliar.
The Bottom Line
Email spam is something that every internet user has to deal with on a daily basis. By using a reputable web host and email provider (and email marketing service for business needs), you can avoid a large percentage of phishing scams while ensuring that your own outgoing messages are delivered.
However, no filter or hosting system is perfect and therefore it’s important to be aware of the types of threats that exist online in order to use the best defense of them all – your brain and powers of discretion. Just don’t click!