What is Spam?

Spam is unwanted, unsolicited communications such as emails, text messages (SMS), or calls, sent in bulk to many recipients at once.

Why do people send spam?

Spammers can have several different goals in sending spam. The most innocuous spam is simply advertising: The goal is to sell a product. Sellers are likely to resort to spam for products that more mainstream advertising channels don’t allow, such as adult content.

However, it can be worse: Spam messages and calls may attempt to trick you into giving up personal information—including passwords or credit card numbers—or into installing malware on your device. They may also try to defraud you by convincing you to send money to the spammer under false pretenses.

Because it’s very cheap to send huge numbers of emails, texts, or calls, doing so can be worthwhile for spammers even if only a tiny fraction of the recipients actually do what the spammers want.

Why am I receiving spam?

Even if you’ve been careful about who you share your personal information with, you’re likely to receive spam. You may provide your email address or phone number to shopping sites, newsletters, streaming services, and so on. Some of the companies you give your information to will sell it to third-party companies called “data brokers,” which put together large lists of email addresses and phone numbers from various sources. Spammers can buy those lists from data brokers and send spam to them. Spammers may also obtain email addresses and telephone numbers from personal data breaches.

What are the negative effects of spam?

Spam can be used to defraud people or steal their private data, creating security and privacy risks. The prevalence of spam also erodes trust, making it more likely that people will mistake legitimate emails or texts for spam. It makes the experience of using the Internet less trustworthy.

Companies that administer email servers have to spend considerable time, effort, and money dealing with spam. A significant percentage of all email is spam, and companies must invest in enough server capacity to handle it along with legitimate email. They have to constantly stay up to date with spammers’ techniques, and update their filtering to deal with it. (Filtering is what allows email services like Gmail to flag spam and move it to your inbox’s “Spam” folder.)

What can I do about the spam I receive?

Any email service will have spam filtering built in and enabled by default. If you receive a spam message that gets past the filter, report it as spam (see your email service or app’s help center for specific instructions). This can help to improve the quality of the service’s filtering. You may want to occasionally look at your spam folder (where emails that get caught by the filter are stored) to make sure there are no legitimate emails there. These can be marked as “not spam” so they’re not filtered out in the future.

Spam filtering for text messages is currently less well-developed. The available options depend on your phone’s operating system and manufacturer. All smartphones have the ability to block texts from specific phone numbers, but that isn’t very effective against spam—spammers can easily switch to new numbers, or make their numbers unidentifiable so they show up on your phone as “unknown.” Your smartphone may provide the option of blocking calls from unknown numbers.

You should never reply to a spam message, or click on anything in a spam message—even an “unsubscribe” link. At the very least, clicking on part of the message signals to the spammer that a live human saw the message, which can result in you receiving yet more spam. There can be worse consequences too, such as installing malware on your device.

You may be able to report unsolicited emails, texts (SMS), or calls to a consumer protection or privacy regulator.

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