Spam Email, Explained

Situation: Your mother/friend/sister emails you and wants to know why you are sending her pornography or solicitations to send money so she can be saved from the foreign country in which she’s been stranded.  Most spam like this is not coming from your account. It’s usually coming from someone else that’s using your email address.  In order to understand the process, think of it this way:

Johnny Scamster in Ontario, Canada wants to mail Sue some kind of scam letter.  He has Sue’s name, home address, and a list of addresses of people in Sue’s neighborhood who may or may not know Sue.

The letter with the unwanted content looks like this:

Sue Doe
10101 Michigan Pl.
Highland, IN
Herman Munster
1313 Mockingbird Lane
Van Nuys CA, 91411


The letter looks like it’s coming from Sue, but when Johnny Scamster sends it, it gets postmarked over the stamp.  The postmark tells you it’s coming from Ontario, NOT from Highland, Indiana.  Even though superficially it looks like it’s coming from Sue, it’s not.

With an email, in order to determine the origin, there’s a set of headers in the message that are not normally visible. These headers usually contain, not only the sending source, but every mail relay that touches the message until it arrives at its destination.  Sometimes, however, these headers only contain the last server to send the scam email. 

To go back to the snail mail analogy- it’s like knowing that the mail came from Ontario, went to the Canadian post office, got on a transport, came to the US post office, got on the delivery truck, went into the carrier’s bag, and arrived in your mailbox.  Some messages have the complete path in their headers; some only tell you who the postman was.

Ultimately, there’s nothing that can be done with this kind of email spam. It’s called *masquerading* and it’s nearly impossible to stop.  That’s why it’s so effective and so relentless, especially if it’s sent sporadically and from different servers.

Even if you can’t kill spam altogether, there are ways to protect against the scams and malware that can be sent in spam email.  Avoid opening any suspicious emails and clicking on unknown links.  Businesses, make sure your networks are outfitted with up-to-date security infrastructures to guard against any malware that does try to creep in.