Some spam can look indistinguishable from the real thing

How to Recognize and Fight Back Against All That Email Spam
Image: Pixabay
January 11, 2016

In this day and age, we are all accustomed to receiving spam in our email inboxes on a daily basis. While some email spam is obvious, some can be more difficult to discern.

Why is this? Well, spammers are becoming quite good at mimicking the look and feel of popular companies and websites. They even go as far as creating email addresses and websites with official looking logos, which is enough to fool many people, especially those who are new to using email and the internet.

So how do you distinguish between email spam and genuine correspondence?

Even though spammers have gotten good at crafting professional, personalized messages, most spam messages will still contain some fairly obvious red flags including: (1) an unfamiliar sender; (2) poor grammar, typos or spelling mistakes; and (3) generic greetings.

There are other warning signs to look for if you're still wondering if an email message is spam. These warning signs include:

  • Asks for sensitive information. If the message asks for sensitive personal or financial information it is probably spam because legitimate banks and companies would never ask for personal or financial information in an email message.
  • Impersonation of companies or people you know. If the message appears to be from a reputable company or person that you think you might know, if you have any doubt the message might be spam, it probably is.
  • Uses scare tactics. If the message conveys that your account will be deleted if you do not respond, it is probably not legitimate.
  • Asks for money in advance. If the message asks you to send money before receiving a service or product, it is likely a spam message.
  • Seems too good to be true. If the message seems too good to be true, such as announcing that you have won a contest that you did not enter, it is most likely spam. These messages will often claim that you must provide money or personal information before you can 'claim your prize.'

While some spam is annoying yet harmless, some spammers may try to steal your sensitive personal information including financial data and account passwords. Others may be trying to infect your computer with malicious software (malware).

Protect yourself. Learn the warning signs of spam and always be on alert when checking your email inbox. If anything looks fishy, it probably is. All spam should immediately be deleted or marked as spam if your email provider gives you that option.

What do you do with unwanted or deceptive email messages?

  • Do not unsubscribe from emails that look suspicious or that you don't recognize as you may be confirming your email address to an unscrupulous spammer.
  • Forward the message to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at Be sure to include the complete email. If asked whether you wish to download external content before forwarding the message, always select 'no' as downloading that content could confirm to the spammer that your email address is good.
  • Mark the message as junk or spam with your email provider. If you use an external client, such as Outlook, you will have to mark the message using the provider's interface, such as inside the webmail login. Marking items as junk inside Outlook doesn't notify your mail provider.
  • Forward the message along with the entire header to the sender's email provider. This can get a bit tricky since spammers often mask their information. A great way to take care of reporting this spam is to use SpamCop, which takes care of decoding the information for you and notifying the sender's provider on your behalf. The service is free, but there is a 7-15 second nag screen that you have to endure.
  • If you try to unsubscribe from an email list and your request is not honored, file a complaint with the FTC.