← Back to Glossary

What is Spam?

by Iwan Price-Evans on Security • March 30, 2022

Spam describes junk messages that might contain unsolicited sales pitches, a virus or malware attachment, or content that attempts to trick the recipient. 

Where does the term spam come from?

The term "spam" comes from a sketch in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1970. In this sketch, a group of Vikings drowns out all other conversations by repeating the word "Spam". The term was then adopted by early chat-room users who would abusively type the word "Spam" repeatedly to scroll other users off the visible page, and therefore disrupt the conversation.

What is spam and how does it work?

Spam messages are messages (including emails, SMS, social media messages, and forum comments) that are often sent to large lists of recipients that may have been acquired by illegitimate means. Malicious spammers will use an application called a spambot to crawl the internet collecting email addresses to use for sending spam. 

These large volume spam messages are mostly sent by a person who is controlling a network of computers, sometimes called a botnet. The botnet is then used to automatically send the messages. Messages can be sent to hundreds of thousands of recipients at once, and often contain malware attachments or links to malicious downloads.

How serious are spam emails?

Spam email isn't just annoying – it constantly impacts global email systems. Email management systems and applications must have filtering mechanisms in place to ensure mailboxes don't fill up and stop working.

How does a spam filter work?

Modern email applications such as Google Gmail and Office 365 Outlook have very effective spam filtering tools. Spam filtering is applied at the mail server and also at the user's email application.

The mail server will automatically remove or quarantine emails that it suspects contain dangerous files or code. Any email that it considers to be non-harmful but potential spam it will allow to be delivered to the user's email application.

The application will then sort this and move it to the user's Junk or Spam folder, allowing the user to keep or delete it.

What are spam trigger words?

There are many common types of spam email subjects that try to trick individuals into opening a harmful email. These can contain content about:

  • Pharmaceutical products
  • Adult content
  • Get rich quick schemes
  • Quick loans
  • Gambling

Urgency is often used in phishing emails to trick recipients into handing over their details or making a financial transaction. These could be:

  • An urgent call to action or a threat, which could be 'act now', 'avoid penalty', or similar phrases.
  • A request for payment of a fake invoice
  • A request to confirm your credit card or bank details which links to a fake website

Is all spam email bad?

Not all spam is harmful. Large volumes of commercial spam emails are sent by marketers every day. Many countries have introduced privacy laws to protect individuals from being sent unwanted spam emails. These privacy laws allow recipients to opt-out of receiving this type of email and give them legal protection in upholding this choice. Some examples of these laws are: