Spam and Ham - Can You Tell The Difference?

Also see our spambuster script that stops spam bots from crawling your website to find your email address!

Spam.  If you have used the internet for more than five minutes chances are you need no introduction to this evil.  Spam is a name that covers all types of junk mail, from marketing scams, emails touting prescription products at low prices, ads, jokes and all sorts of other nonsense that most people can frankly live without.

Here is a selection of spam we have received over the months.

Junk email

Some are one liner junk:

One liner spam

Some are full of spelling mistakes:

Spelling mistakes spam

Some are more elaborate:

Elaborate spam

And some try to sell you junk lists!

Spam selling spam lists

Why Spam?

There are a lot of reasons that people send out spam (we call these "people" spammers for want of a better word).

  • They want to sell you something.
  • They want you to visit their site.
  • They want to defraud you out of your money.
  • They want to confirm that your email address is active.
  • They just plain want to shock/offend you.

Spam Flavors

Spam falls into two categories:

UBE - Unsolicited Bulk Email

This is the email sent out in bulk to people who haven't requested it.  This category includes jokes, virus alerts (both hoaxes and otherwise), chain letters and stuff like that.

UCE - Unsolicited Commercial Email

This is bulk commercial email in one form of another.  This kid of spam is the spam that wants to lighten your wallet and subtract from your bank account.  This category includes pyramid schemes (including Multilevel Marketing, or MLM), offers of software for collecting e-mail addresses and sending UCE, offers of bulk e-mailing services for sending UCE, stock offerings for unknown start-up companies, quack health products and remedies.

Why is Spam a Problem?

Anyone who has to deal with spam knows what some of these are.  I'm not going to dwell on this but the problems that spam create include:

  • Bandwidth hogging.
  • Timewasting.
  • Dilutes genuine email.
  • Dealing with offensive stuff isn't nice.
  • Add your reason here!

Spotting Spam

Spotting spam isn't hard.  Here are a few tips:

Emails from people you've never heard of.  In business this isn't uncommon but for a personal email box this can be an instant giveaway.

  • Weird subject lines.  Lots of exclamation marks, promises of money, viagra, junk.
  • Big promises.  Money, something for free.
  • Unsavory content.
  • "Remove me" links in the body of the email.  These are used to verify that email addresses are active.
  • Large emails or very small (one or two short lines) emails.  

These tell tales certainly don't cover all spam out there and a few fall outside these but they do give you a quick way to spot much of the junk likely to end up in tour email box.

Spammers are getting a bit cleverer nowadays and don't be surprised if you get an email pretending to be a reply to an email you sent out.  They will look like genuine replies with a subject line beginning "Re:" and a convincing looking "----- Original Message -----" block at the bottom.  If in doubt, check your outbox!

Dealing with Spam

There are a few ways to deal with spam.  How you deal with spam does depend on a few things though.  These include:

  • How you use your email?  Ss it purely personal or do you use it for business?
  • How much spam do you get?
  • How much time/bandwidth is it costing you?

One word of advice before you go any further - don't expect anything you do to be 100% effective.  You can reduce on spam but short on not using email, you won't eliminate it.  If you try to go too far in your quest to eliminate spam from your electronic diet you'll end up blocking/deleting genuine email.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Delete spam.  Bottom line, if you see spam in your email box the quickest way to deal with it is hit the delete key.
  • Use your email program to create junk rules to take junk straight into the bin or a junk folder.  If you ware worried about deleting genuine email, give this folder a quick visual before deleting the contents.
  • If the problem is a big one, invest in a filter that updates automatically.  You'll need to research the right filter for you to make sure it does what you want and that will take time.
  • Report spammers.  This can be time-consuming but it does make a difference.  SpamCop is a good one to try (

Choose the system of systems that you think are right for you.  Experiment and see what helps.  Don't expect 100% protection from spam but make it your goal to reduce the time you spend on dealing with junk.

Protecting Yourself from Spam

There are a few simple steps you can take to protect your email address from spammers.  The key thing to remember is that email addresses on spam lists are harvested off the Internet by a machine and there are ways to fool these machines.

Here are a few of the most effective countermeasures you can take:

  • Never place your email address in plain-text form on a web page.  Use an anti-spam JavaScript to add it (there's one detailed on this site) or add the email address as an image to the page.  Another thing you can do is mess with the email to make it invalid but a human will understand how to fix it ( translates to
  • Do the same for any postings you make to newsgroups and email lists.
  • Don't reply to spam.  This is one guaranteed way to at least double (a ten-fold increase if you're unlucky) how much junk you get.
  • Likewise. don't respond to hyperlinks and "remove me" links in spam emails.  These are used to verify that addresses are accurate.
  • Discourage your friends and colleagues from forwarding junk, jokes, chain letters and so on to you.  These things end up in the hands of spammers.  If you do want to have the latest screensaver or joke program, encourage your friends to send you a link to the program on the web so you can check it out first and choose for yourself whether you want to download it.
  • If you have to divulge your email address to a company on the web, be careful.  While many will be legitimate some might not be.  A good way to track down who put your address in the wild is to have an address for every company you deal with.  So, let's say to buy something from, if you can, use an email address like or or some other combination.  Do this for each site you deal with and leaks will show themselves.  Refuse to deal with companies that behave unscrupulously.

NOTE:  Some people don't like this and say that there are many ways email addresses can get into the wild (viruses, disgruntled employees, accident, and so on) and say it is unfair for customers to blame them for this.  I disagree.  If a company or site has so little respect for it's customers/visitors/subscribers that it allows this to happen (no antivirus app, poor database control and so on) I wouldn't want to deal with them.  How long before it's your address or credit card info that's released?

Your email address is valuable - treat it as such and take steps to keep it safe!

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
Last updated: May 4th 2004
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