Why Is There So Much Spam?

Between bouts of frustration with my inbox, I’ve been reading your various articles on spam. I think I’m slowly getting a handle on it all, but it sure seems crazy. And it really got me to wondering… why is there so much spam in the first place?

I feel your pain.

Some time ago, I did some research. I looked at all my email for an entire year. I found out that not only do I get a lot of email, but my calculations show that 87% of it was junk. Wow.

Why is there so much spam?

Because it works.

High volume, tiny success

I define spam as unsolicited email, or email you did not ask for.

There are different types of spam, but in almost every case, sending spam is so cheap that it doesn’t take much response for a spammer to declare a spam campaign a rousing success.

For example, say a spammer sends out 10,000,000 emails pushing a knock-off of the latest wonder drug. If only a tiny percent — perhaps even just one person out of ten million — purchases the drug through him, the spammer has made a profit. It doesn’t matter if it’s fake watches, body-part enhancement aids, or cheap computer software; if even the tiniest percentage of spam emails result in a sale, then that spam was successful, and you can bet it will continue.

But wait! There’s more!

We don’t fall for scams — do we?

The most famous scam is the so-called Nigerian scam, also known as the 419 or “advance fee” scam. You receive an email “in confidence” from some supposedly high-ranking official attempting to move large amounts of money out of their country. They need your help, and in return, they promise you a significant portion of those funds. Once you engage, they use various techniques to scam money from you until you realize you’ve been had.

That’s common knowledge, right? Nobody falls for that anymore, right?

I thought so too, but it turns out you and I are both wrong. I checked with ScamBusters.org, and would you believe $100 to $200 million dollars are lost to these scammers every year? People continue to fall for it at an alarming rate.

You can see why variants are so popular right now. As I write this, I’m getting notified several times a day of various lotteries I’ve won overseas, and I still get variations on the Nigerian scam where the names and countries have been changed.

They exist because they work. They don’t need to work often; even the occasional success on the scammer/spammer’s part is enough.

And there’s even more…

Is that email really from who you think it is?

Phishing is email that looks like it came from a legitimate source, like eBay, PayPal, your bank, your ISP, or your email provider. It asks you to visit a site to confirm or update some information. When you get to that site — which, again, looks legitimate — you’re asked to log in with your account name and password, after which you might also be asked to “confirm” additional private information by providing things like your credit card number.

The problem, of course, is that the site isn’t legitimate, and you’ve just given your login or personal information to a scammer, who probably uses or sells it within minutes.

Phishing and advance-fee scams are two of the most prevalent traps we fall prey to. Some scams are very well-crafted. Some aren’t, but people fall for those too. It only takes a little success for a phishing campaign to be worth continuing.

Because it works

So why is there so much spam? Because it works. It’s dirt cheap to send out a ton of spam, and as long as a few people respond, spammers continue to find ways to get their junk into our inboxes.

So what about those few people? Are they ignorant? Naive? Uninformed? Desperate? Perhaps even — dare I say it — stupid?

Yes. No. All of the above. Maybe. Sometimes.

There’s no one conclusion to be drawn. People definitely aren’t as educated about scams as they should be. Unfortunately, that state of affairs predates the internet and email. The promise of something for next to nothing is just too good to ignore for some people, and thus they become direct victims.

The rest of us become indirect victims as we wade through the sea of spam.

Originally published as Why Is There So Much Spam? on Ask Leo!