Laurence Canter certainly didn’t expect to go down in history one day as a pioneer of spam email. In 1994, the US lawyer was the first person ever to send messages that resemble the character of a spam email today. A computer specialist engaged by Canter and his wife flooded over 6,500 newsgroups on the Internet with advertising for their company. But this was only the beginning of a story that has now been going on for 25 years.

In this blog post you will learn everything about the history of email spam, the damage and dangers it causes and the right protection against unwanted messages.

Key figures on email spam

%

of global email traffic is spam

%

of all dangerous spam emails end up in German email inboxes

About Spam, Cybercriminals and Monty Python

Three things that couldn’t be more different: What has Spam got to do with cyber criminals and the comedy group Monty Python? The answer is: a lot. At least if you take a look at the history of email spam.

At the time Canter had his advertising emails sent, the Internet was hardly commercialized. It was therefore absolutely unusual for users to be confronted with advertising in such a direct way. This was reflected in particular in the reaction of the recipients. Therefore the lawyer was very soon confronted with fierce criticism. One user even called for “spam and coconuts to be sent to Canter and Co”. But “Spam” here, however, meant canned meat produced by the food company Hormel Foods, whose product name is an artificial marketing word made up of “spiced ham”. The angry user’s request can therefore be interpreted as an allusion to the content, which is as “soft” in coconuts and canned meat as it is in advertising emails.

The British comedy company Monty Python also contributed to the naming of the spam email. They did a sketch in the 1970s that was set in a pub. The guests of the pub can choose from several dishes, but each one contains spam. Then a horde of Vikings, also dining in the restaurant, starts singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spaaaam!”. The frequent and penetrating appearance of the word “spam” within the sketch, finally prompted the usenet forum administrator Joel Furr in 1992 to declare the increasing “garbage contributions” in his forums as “spam”. From then on the term prevailed.

Legendary spam sketch of the British comedy group “Monty Python”

Spam emails in the course of time

If you think that spam emails are a thing of the past, you are wrong. Although cyber criminals are increasingly trying to make life difficult for us with other lucrative fraud methods, such as phishing or ransomware, sending spam emails is still very popular. To put it in numbers: Between July 2017 and July 2018, the proportion of spam e-mails in companies was more than half of the total amount of e-mail traffic generated worldwide. In Germany alone, sending spam consumes as much electricity as a small city.

As if this wasn’t unpleasant enough, the proportion of dangerous spam emails of all email traffic is also increasing significantly. The increased risk potential of modern spam emails is primarily due to significantly improved targeting by spammers. Through targeted addressing and country-specific topics, spam emails appear much more authentic than a few years ago. Not only the quality of spam emails, but also the spammers’ preferred targets have changed.

While only 10 years ago the United States was the main target of attacks, another country has now moved past them: Germany. The proportion of spam emails in Germany has doubled compared to 2010. The main reason for this is probably the very good financial situation of the German population. Spammers expect the most lucrative sources of income here.

How dangerous are spam emails today?

While cybercriminals in the 1990s and 2000s mainly sent emails with advertising intentions, the situation is different today. Especially the sending of ransomware or other malware in email attachments has become very common among criminals.

Spammers use a fake identity to try to force the target to click on an email attachment infected with malicious code. They often claim that there is an unpaid invoice in the appendix. However, when the target opens the file, the ransomware it contains is activated, encrypting all files stored on the hard disk.

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Another scam that is often carried out by means of spam emails is phishing. For example, the cybercriminals pretend to be well-known credit institutions. They claim that the customer’s bank account has been blocked for security reasons. To unlock it, the victim has to confirm his access data again. To do this, the target person has to click on a URL that is very similar to the real URL of the bank.

It can only be distinguished from the original by certain additions or another Top Level Domain. Amateurs often have no suspicion and will be forwarded to a website based on the design of the bank via the link. If they comply with the requests and reveal their data there, the cyber criminals will have direct access to the information. Some of the “fake websites” look so deceptively real that they are indistinguishable from the bank’s regular websites.

How do spammers get to my email address?

In order to protect oneself optimally against the flood of unwanted messages, one must first understand under which circumstances they end up in our digital mailbox. The fact is, if you keep your email address to yourself, you should normally not receive any spam emails. We only become the target of spammers when we make our email address publicly accessible on the Internet or entrust it to dubious service providers. But how do spammers actually collect our email addresses?

Spammers use so-called “harvesters”, also known as “spambots”, to search the Internet for specific email addresses. If you still want to publish your email address on the Internet, you can have it converted to Unicode with the help of free service providers on the Internet. Spam bots will then no longer be able to read them.

You should also be careful with unknown Internet providers who promise to make us disclose our data. A good example are websites that lure with competitions and possible money profits. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that the alleged profit does not even exist and is only used as an excuse. Here, too, you can frequently go directly to the mailing lists of the spammers.

Perfectly protected against email spam – this is how it works

Without a doubt, the proportion of spam emails was significantly higher a good ten years ago at around 90%, but one should not be deceived by this development. Because it’s all about the sophistication of the spammers. They continuously ensure that the risk potential of spam emails increases. Without a professional spam filter which also detects viruses and other threats, employees not only spend a lot of time organizing emails, but are also exposed to constant threats. In addition to links to malicious websites, spam emails may contain malware and phishing links.

Only professional spam filters for companies such as Hornetsecurity’s spam filter service ensure absolutely “clean” mailboxes with spam detection rates of 99.9%. In combination with Advanced Threat Protection, even the most fraudulent attack methods, such as CEO fraud, ransomware and spearphishing are effortlessly excluded. Just during July 2018, about half of all emails scanned by “Advanced Threat Protection” were classified as malicious. The largest part of these emails, more than 90% of malicious emails, is due to dangerous threats, as stated in the Hornetsecurity ATP Analysis of July 2018. Thanks to the intervention of the Hornetsecurity Spamfilter Service and Hornetsecurity ATP, the recipients of these emails were not only fully able to concentrate on their tasks, they were also not exposed to the risk of a “wrong click”. This finally brings peace and quiet to your email inbox.

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