For the last month or so, a bunch of 50 brave (or foolish?) volunteers have opened themselves up to a world of spam. Security company McAfee gave each of them a new laptop and email address, and instructed them to use the internet unprotected for 30 days.
I reckon this experiment would have been quite fun to take part in. Participants were encouraged to click on whatever they liked online, just to see what would happen. As you can imagine, throwing caution to the wind online produces some interesting results.
For instance, you can probably sympathise with that ‘what if…’ feeling which occurs when one of those pop-up windows advertising an unbelievable offer appears.
You know that whatever it says (usually that you’ve won millions of dollars, or something similar), it’s almost certainly a scam. And you daren’t click it because to do so will probably bring your computer to its knees and pass your email address on to purveyors of all sorts of embarrassing wares.
But there’s always that tiny sliver of doubt: what if you have actually won a lottery? Well, for the first time, the people taking part in this experiment could click and find out if the advertised offers really were too good to be true. (In case you’re wondering, they were. Sorry – you haven’t won anything.)
This experiment wasn’t dreamed up just to give a bunch of volunteers the chance to play fast and loose with internet security precautions. There was a serious purpose to the experiment – to demonstrate the dangers of spam and the risks in not exercising a bit of commonsense online.
You can download a report summarising what happened over on the McAfee website. All the participants wrote blogs throughout the experiment too, so you can have a read and see what they thought. I’ve skimmed the report this morning, and here’s what struck me:
- The total number of spam emails the 50 participants received was 104,832. Thats 2,096 each – about 70 for every person, every day. And remember; they all started with new, clean addresses to begin with, so had the experiment lasted longer, that figure would have continued to grow.
- Some of the messages were more than an annoyance. Several recipients were sent viruses – including hidden software designed to covertly infest computers and use them to send out spam. The user of the computer wouldn’t ever know they were contributing to the problem.
- The top subject for spam was finance – loan offers and the like. Many messages included adult themes which people might find offensive.
The end of the report contains some useful tips on how to reduce the amount of spam you receive. If I was going to pull out a few key things, I guess these are most important:
- Don’t post your address on the internet. Scammers scan sites looking for email addresses. If you must do so, use different addresses for different things, so your main address doesn’t get overwhelmed by junk.
- Use spam filtering. Like most email services, 123-reg email addresses come with anti-spam and virus protection as standard. Good spam protection will mean you don’t ever see most of the junk you receive.
- Be careful who you give your address to. Legitimate companies will give you the chance to opt in to receive marketing messages and newsletters. This is not spam, because you can unsubscribe when you want.
- Don’t click on links in spam, or ever respond. This just lets the spammers know your address is valid – so they’ll send you even more rubbish!
- Don’t open spam messages. Doing so can be enough to infect your computer with malware or viruses (though this is unlikely if you have up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software).
Finally, although there are very real dangers from spam, you’re much less likely to be affected if you have good anti-virus software and your email service has a decentspam filter.
These will delete most dangerous messages before you get to them. Combine them with a bit of commonsense, and keeping yourself safe isn’t too difficult.