[REVEALED] How Spammers Get Your Email Address

Category: Email , Spam

It's maddening when your email inbox gets a fresh, steaming load of spam dumped on it. Equally frustrating is when spammers spoof YOUR address as the sender, and all your friends start asking why YOU are sending them unwanted sales pitches for dubious products. Understanding how spammers get your email address can help to prevent both of these problems. Here's the scoop on how spammers get ahold of your email addresses, and steps you can take to protect your inbox...

Is Your Email Address Vulnerable to Spammers?

Spammers, scammers, and other cyber-miscreants appear to have supernatural powers that enable them to guess email addresses accurately and quickly. But in reality, the bad guys harvest email addresses by pretty mundane means. YOU may even be contributing to the problem without realizing it. Let’s dig in to this problem to see what can be done to limit the flow of that ubiquitous digital canned lunch meat.

Using web-crawling "spider" programs similar to the ones search engines use to index Web pages, some spammers hunt down email addresses by looking for the telltale "@" symbol. Working swiftly and ceaselessly, spiders can harvest millions of email addresses automatically. To avoid being "bitten" by an email harvesting spider, don't put your email address on public spaces on the Web. That means not posting it to online forums or personal web pages. If it's included in online directories (school, work, clubs, etc.) ask to have it removed.

Do a Google search to see where your email address is available, and work towards becoming invisible. (Tip: enter your email address in the Google search box enclosed in double quotes.) If you must make your email address visible in public, you can obscure your address by avoiding the "@" symbol, i.e., use "joe at schmoe dot com" instead, create an image with the address, or use a disposable email address.

How Do Spammers Get My Email Address?

"Dictionary attacks" are another way to collect email addresses. This method, which combines common words with popular domain names, relies on the fact that you don’t need a valid email address to generate an outgoing email. Spammers generate emails to computer-generated addresses, accepting millions of bounce-backs in exchange for a handful of replies from valid addresses. That's why the first rule of dealing with spam is "don't reply to it." Doing so just tells the spammer that you are a "live one" and worth hitting with more spam. Delete that unwanted message, or banish it to the Trash folder.

You can make it harder for a dictionary attacker to guess your address by NOT choosing any combination of dictionary words, common first or last names, and a string of numbers. If your email address is smith123@aol.com or susie90210@gmail.com I can guarantee that you'll get loads of spam, no matter how careful you are. Those addresses are just easy targets, because they're so easy to guess.

Margaritaville? Huh?

My article Break Up With the Internet (is it possible?) deals with the question of how to remove all traces of your identity from the online world. (SPOILER: It's really hard.)

And if you’re interested in the history of Spam, and how it came to be associated with unsolicited emails, see A Brief History of Spam, an American Meat Icon

With apologies to Jimmy Buffett, some people claim that there's a hacker to blame, but you know, it's your own damn fault sometimes. Many people simply hand over their email addresses, no questions asked, just to get access to a game, contest, some free program, a ringtone, or other supposed "valuable prize." It's a good idea to have a "throwaway" email address that you can enter into Web forms, rather than using your everyday address. See my related article Fight Spam With a Disposable Email Address for more tips on how to protect your inbox.

If you have an email password that's easily guessable, someone may hack into the email account and steal all of the contacts stored there. If your computer is not adequately protected from viruses, spyware and phishing attacks, all of the people in your email address book are vulnerable to spam attacks as well. See my article Here's the END of Weak Passwords for help picking a secure password.

I'm pretty sure that email "forwards" play into the hands of spammers, because they accumulate a large number of addresses as the message spreads from one person to another. For a while, I wasn't sure how this worked, because I didn't see an easy mechanism for those bloated messages to wind up in the hands of the the spammer. But then I realized that if even one of those recipients had their email hacked (or computer compromised by malware), the entire trove or addresses would be vulnerable.

This may or may not be a major source of email address harvesting, but at the very least, you must agree that blindly forwarding every silly story doesn't contribute anything positive to the Internet. Cambodian midgets fighting lions? Nigerian prince wants your help transferring millions? Really?? If you're tempted to forward something that seems dubious, check it out on Snopes before hitting the Send button, or just Google it.

Along those lines, I cringe whenever I get an email that includes my address, along with dozens of others, in the TO: or CC: line. It's especially irksome when they come from businesses who should know better. In addition to revealing their customer/contact lists to everyone else in the distribution list, it's really bad form. I recommend using the BCC: (blind carbon copy) option instead of putting multiple addresses in the TO: or CC: lines of your outbound emails.

Data Breaches: An Ongoing Privacy Menace

Hacking into a major company's databases can yield millions of high-quality email addresses at once, not to mention even more valuable data such as credit card numbers, Social Security Numbers, etc. In December 2016, Yahoo confessed that over one BILLION of its users’ accounts had been hacked three years prior. Target, Chase Bank, American Express, Home Depot, Apple, Sony and other large companies have reported hacks in recent years, resulting in many millions of accounts being compromised.

The Big Kahuna of Data Breaches was reported in September 2017. The Equifax hack was especially damaging, because it revealed names, addresses, Social Security Numbers, birth dates, driver’s license data, credit card numbers, and email addresses. Since then, high-profile data breaches revealing untold millions of customer records have become a common occurrence. By combining all of that data, Bad Guys can create much more sophisticated and compelling email scams.

See my article Some Privacy Tools You Should Try (and one to avoid) for some tips on how to protect your privacy in the age of constant data breaches.

Spammers also trade in lists of email addresses. A list of a million addresses gleaned from a data breach might go for as little as $100. Some online crooks don't even mail spam, but make their living harvesting and trading email addresses.

Your supposedly legitimate business associates (or any website where you hand out your email address) may be selling you out to spammers, though they may think of the spammers as "trusted partners." Before signing up to any mailing list, make sure you know what the email privacy policy is. Opt out of allowing your email address to be shared with third parties for any reason, if possible.

It's almost impossible to hide your email address from spammers completely. At the least, you'll probably get a blind dictionary attack spam, eventually. But you can reduce the attack surfaces. The fewer entities that have your email address, the less spam you will receive. Think (and read the privacy policy) before you give your email address to any website. Using a disposable email address, keeping your own computer secured, and encouraging your friends and family to do likewise will also help.

Got any additional tips for keeping your email address safe? Post your comment or question below…

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