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Rules of thumb for detecting spam

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The only ultimate way to get rid of spam is to educate people not to buy spam products. Now, without hard facts, I suppose people who are not technically inclined and/or of the older generation make up the majority of these buyers. I simply can’t imagine that a CS graduate (or any science graduate for that matter) falls for a spam mail.

But what makes us decide that a specific mail is spam? For us younger people, who grew up with the internet, it’s a matter of seconds to make the right decision. For the older generation this decision is not that easy, though. I see it with my parents; they had to ask me already multiple times whether this or that mail is spam.

What follows now is a simple list of questions, which do not need any technical knowledge, which help you decide (with extremely high probability) if a certain mail is spam. Go through this list, everytime you can answer a question with yes the probability that the mail is legitimate decreases by 50%:

  1. Mail sender is someone you don’t know
    It’s unlikely that you get a single, unexpected and important mail from someone you don’t know. If it’s important he/she will send it again.
  2. The mail wants to sell you something
    Real businesses DO NOT just send mails to stranger to advertise their product — and if they do it’s a crappy firm.
  3. Did you win the lottery/money?
    If the mail claims you won the lottery you can be sure it’s fake. There is no lottery which would contact the winner by email. Basically, every mail which is about money is fake.

    Say you passed these three questions but you are still not sure whether it is legitimate or not. Then continue questioning:

  4. Look at the subject
    What does the subject say? Real subjects are short (max 4-5 words), concise, written in one language, and especially make sense. If the subject is only garbage, you can be very sure it’s spam. If the subject is sexually oriented, you can be very sure it’s spam.

    Let’s say you are still not confident enough to delete the mail, continue with these harder criteria:

  5. Look at the sender mail address
    Say the mail claims to be from the firm ABC Inc. Now you have to look at the sender mail address and check whether the sender has an email address of the form <name>, for example. If the firm name does not repeat itself in the email address in one or the other way, you can be extremely sure it’s fake. Any mail pretending to be from a firm but sent from a yahoo, gmail, gmx, lycosmail, etc. is very unlikely to be a good mail.
  6. Look at the body of the mail
    Is the body (the main text) well formated? Does it look like a normal letter or is it wild, unorganised or has partly text in different languages or plain garbage? If it does not look and read like a normal letter, it’s spam.
  7. Lookup the sender / firm on google
    You made it down to here and still didn’t delete your mail yet, then the mail has to contain at least a firm name and a contact person. Now go to and enter the firm name in the search field and look at the results. Click on the links from google to visit their website (DO NOT click on the links in the mail itself, always go via google). If you can’t find their website (e.g. as stated in the mail) or the website sells strange things then it’s spam. Do the same procedure with your contact person.

If you follow this list for every mail you are unsure of then you can be confident that you won’t become prey of spammers. I can positively say that not a single spam mail slipped past these 7 steps in the last (and first 🙂 ) 10 years of my time spent with the internet.


Written by jk

June 27, 2007 at 6:35 pm

Posted in offtopic

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