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Who's Serving Up the Spam?

With apologies to the Hormel Company (the company that long ago created the canned meat dish called "Spam"), it's a simple fact that spam is the one and only term used to describe any type of unwanted messages in your mailbox. (Read on to find out how that came about.)

Spam became a problem as soon as email became popular. Why is that? Well, because people who felt they had something important say—and to sell—truly believed that we wanted (and needed) to know all about their products and messages.

And there were a lot of those people.

Spam inspection.

Spam is an e-mail message that is sometimes disguised as a message from people or companies we know (so we trust it at first), but then it turns out to be advertising, an annoying plug for a get-rich-quick scheme, or even a dangerous message carrying a computer virus. The United States Department of Justice calls spam simply "unsolicited commercial email."

Spam is electronic junk mail, an unwanted message you get just because someone has access to your email address and something to say. Just about all of us get some sort of spam, ranging from offers on discount pharmaceuticals to fake warnings about personal bank accounts.

A recent study by an IT security company found that globally 70% of all sent emails are spam. But just who is doing all the spamming, and how?

Sophisticated spam.

The emails you get from an annoying cousin or from the local sporting goods store aren't spam. As technology became more sophisticated, so did spam, but not in a good way. For years now spam has been a huge, almost underground industry—there's been nothing harmless about it.

Today, true spam is generated by massive networks that are sending out emails in the millions, even billions.

Botnets: serving up spam.

The forces behind it are called "botnets," a network of controlled computers and networks that are used to deliver malware (bad software), spam, and a host of scams. These botnets ("robot networks") are made up of computers (one could be yours!) that have been taken over and are manipulated by viruses or malware.

Botnets may be sneaky, but they're well-known and even have famous names, such as the Cutwail, Festi, Lethic, and Grum botnets. They can send billions of spam emails daily. At one point, in 2012, the Grum botnet was sending out 18 billion emails a day by controlling on average 120,000 infected computers daily to generate spam.

In 2010, Cutwail-infected computers were used in coordinated attacks against a few hundred websites, including those of the CIA and FBI.

Spam gets personal.

Oftentimes, a botnet will control hijacked computers to send out millions of emails to overwhelm or take down a server. What the botnets do is use the IP addresses of the infected computers and hacked email accounts to generate the disruptive emails.

Signs of improvement.

Fortunately, many of the botnets have been slowed down drastically, starting in 2012. A globally coordinated campaign by security firms and ISPs managed to track down and shut down or severely hamper the largest botnets. The dramatic decrease is the result of that aggressive war.

Of course, as soon as one botnet is slowed down, another one is there to take its place.

The inspiration for spam.

So why did unwanted email become "spam"? You may find it hard to believe, but it came from a Monty Python skit, where spam is the very thing you don't want, but the only thing, it seems, you can get. See for yourself:

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