Earliest known case of spam

by Marius Marinescu / 12 May

How many spam emails do you receive in a day? Do they still bother you or you accept them as a part of the normal digital life?

Imagine the culture shock, the impact of having to read the first ever spam on the screen of your computer.


In 1978, nobody knew what digital advertising meant. Gary Thuerk from Chicago, who considers himself the father of e-commerce, used the limited Internet of that time called ARPANET, wrote manually hundreds of email addresses (about 15% of the people who had a connection then) and sent a promo email about the DECSYSTEM-20 computer made by Digital Equipment Corporation, its employer. It said: ”WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH…”


This unsolicited email caused a lot of negative feedback, but also important sales: about $14 million worth. All in all, the author of the spam promised to his superiors to never do this thing again. Too bad the others liked the idea and are still using it today.

Nowadays many businesses don’t consider the dangers of spam email and see it as merely a nuisance. Whilst unsolicited emails are certainly frustrating, in many scenarios they can also be dangerous and contain malicious content.

Spam email is often easy to spot. It tends to come in the form of advertising get rich quick schemes or charity appeals. Whatever the content though, the key to spotting spam email is the unsolicited nature of it.

Working on the assumption that you’re only using your email address for legitimate purposes, you should know what sort of emails you’ll be receiving in your inbox. For example, you can expect to receive promotional emails from an online bookmaker, if you’ve recently registered for their services. However, it would be odd to receive such an email, if you’ve never gambled online and you should consider an email in such a situation as spam.

The issue with being able to spot spam easily is that it leads to complacency. It has become accepted that even with the best spam filters in place, you will receive some unsolicited emails. This has resulted in more sophisticated spam email, some of which can go unnoticed if you’re not careful.

Spam emails often have malicious intent and therefore you should be aware of the potential risks. Some of the risks to be aware of are:


The dangers of spam email


Spyware. Spyware is software that allows a third party, unknown to yourself, to gain information about the activity on your computer. This software might be tracking your emails, usernames, and passwords and is an easy way for cyber criminals to gain information about your online bank accounts. Just clicking a malicious link is all it takes to install spyware. In all likelihood, you’ll be none the wiser that this has happened.


Phishing. Phishing is a more direct attempt to gain sensitive information such as username details and passwords. Instead of taking this information from you, scammers will ask you for it by posing as a legitimate source. However, as mentioned before, the key to spotting a phishing attempt, should the email look convincing, is your expectations. Are you expecting an email of this sort? Would you expect this company to ask you for this information? Even if the answer to these questions is yes, should you have any doubt at all, find contact details for that company via Google (not the email!) and ask them directly whether the email is legitimate or not. They should be able to tell you definitively. If they can’t – delete the email.


Ransomware. Ransomware is a means of locking your computer or your IT network and essentially holding it to ransom. Simply clicking a link or downloading a file can install ransomware. Unlike spyware, you’ll very quickly be aware that you have ransomware on your system. Once it has locked all of your files, you won’t be able to use the computer. A ransom note will then appear, either on your screen or in each of your files. It will contain an explanation and request a ransom, usually in Bitcoins. In the event that you are a victim of a ransomware attack, do NOT pay the ransom. There is no guarantee your files will be safe. You’re dealing with criminals after all. Involve experts as soon as possible and let them help you.


Avoiding the dangers of spam email. Whilst spam filters and email protection software will help remove the majority of spam from your inbox, the best way to stop spam email is to behave sensibly. Be aware of how you’re browsing and what you’re doing and you should minimize the amount of spam email you receive. Here is a list of practical steps you can take to stop spam email arriving in your inbox.


•  Don’t click links or load images from spam email

If you receive an email from a source you don’t recognize, do not click any links contained within. Malicious links are one of the biggest dangers of spam email, but even if the link isn’t malicious it could show those responsible that your email address is active. If scammers can identify your email address as active, the amount of spam email you receive will probably increase. A number of email clients will block images if they don’t trust the original source as images can also tip off scammers. The email might not even contain an image, just a single pixel tracking bug, and this is all it takes to show that your email address is active.


•  Don’t sign up for newsletters or promotions from unknown companies

A number of companies will share or sell their marketing lists to other businesses, so be careful what you sign up for and who you trust with your email address. If you’re likely to sign up to multiple websites or newsletters, consider the use of a different email address just for this cause. Whilst most legitimate sources won’t sell your data, be wary of the terms and conditions when registering. There are often tick boxes that allow you to opt out of any list sharing. Make sure you’re aware of companies that will pass your email address on. Whilst you may trust the company you’re signing up to, you can’t always trust who they will pass your email address on to.


•  Don’t reveal your email address

Scammers routinely use software to scrape email addresses from the internet for malicious purposes. Therefore, it is important to be careful when you reveal your email address. Keep your email address hidden, unless you absolutely have to reveal it, whether it be on your own website, social media or forums. You can always send your email address to legitimate individuals via other means, should they request it. The more cautious you are with sharing your email address, the easier it is to avoid the dangers of spam email.


• Train your spam filter

The vast majority of spam filters and email clients will have a means of reporting spam email. Make sure you use this feature. When you report spam email your software improves by learning what to look out for. If you realize that you’re frequently receiving similar spam emails, it is likely that you’re on a list and by reporting these emails, your spam filter will become more efficient.  By training your spam filter, you’ll see less of the same spam emails, reducing the overall number in the process. This is one of the quickest ways to stop spam email.


• Change your email address

The most drastic step you can take to stop spam email is to change your email address. Obviously, this method comes with a lot of downsides. Most notably, you will have to inform all of your contacts about the change and this will usually mean you need to work with two inboxes for a set period of time. This method can be frustrating. However, it is effective. It will allow you to start from scratch and as long as you change your behavior and implement good software to help, you shouldn’t have to change your email address again. Only consider this method in worst case scenarios


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