How do I know it’s spam? How to detect spam emails

Spam is one of the things people like least about email. Sometimes it is annoying but harmless – like  bulk advertising. Much worse are the spam emails that try to trick you into scams or contain computer viruses. Luckily, today’s spam blockers keep a large share of such messages from reaching your inbox. You can also help keep yourself safe by learning to identify the most common types of spam.
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Not sure which emails are spam? Our checklist can help.

Identifying spam: a checklist

 Use this checklist to identify the major types of spam emails:

  1. Is the sender known to you and does the email address match the name?
  2. Does the subject line seem strange?
  3. Does the content of the message seem dubious, illegal or pornographic?
  4. Does the email contain urgent requests for action?

 1. Strange sender can be a sign of spam

Sometimes you can spot spam without even opening the email. You know what sort of messages you get from your email provider, what newsletters you’ve subscribed to, what online services you use – and of course you know your friends and family. So an email from a sender you’ve never heard of should always be treated with caution.
However, you should also keep in mind that skilled spammers can forge the sender’s name so people think they’re receiving an email from Amazon, LinkedIn or another legitimate company. One way to tell if an address has been faked is to position your mouse pointer over the sender name and see if the email address that appears matches that name.

2. Look out for typos, numbers or symbols in the subject line

The subject line of the email can be another clue that you’ve been sent suspicious content. Most of us know better than to open a message from sexy singles or supposed royalty in far-off countries, but you should also be wary of subject lines claiming there are technical problems with your PC or mobile device. Cryptic or obviously poorly translated sentences or phrases are another clue. In an attempt to fool spam filters, spammers sometimes use words with some letters replaced by symbols or numbers – like “d!et” instead of “diet”.

3. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is

If you receive an email that contains mysterious health claims, like a wonder-drug that your doctor has been keeping secret from you, beware! This is a common email hoax, as are offers to get you out of debt quick or lucrative job offers you never applied for. Often such emails can expose you to viruses or other malware in links or attachments. So even if you are curious, you should never click on any links or attachments in such messages – and never, ever simply hit “Reply” and provide any requested information unless you are certain the sender is legitimate.

4. Don’t give in to pressure          

Spammers often send fake emails to gain information like account numbers and passwords. For example, you might receive a message from someone claiming to be your bank stating you’ll be locked out of your account unless you click on a link and enter your login information. Legitimate online service providers do not usually ask for your password, so an urgent request like this can be a sign that the email is a hoax. Email scams may also try to make you feel uneasy with tricks like claiming that your device is infected by a virus or sending fake warnings from billing departments. So if you get an email that makes you nervous, trust those feelings! Stay calm and do some research into the content and the sender. For example, if the email appears to have been sent by a real service provider, reach out to them directly using the contact information they provide on their homepage. NEVER hit reply or use any links or contact information from the suspicious message – they may be fake or expose you to malware.

I know an email is spam – now what?

Once you’ve determined an email is spam, your first instinct may be to delete it. However, it is very important to consistently mark unwanted messages as spam rather than just sending them to your Trash. This helps “train” your inbox spam filter, which means the next email from the same sender will go straight to your spam folder. If you suspect an email is a hoax, you may also wish to report the sender to your email provider.

What shouldn’t go into your spam folder?

Sometimes you receive advertisements by email because you subscribed to a newsletter or agreed to let a company send you information – often as part of a promotional offer. If such messages start to annoy you, the best course is to unsubscribe to the newsletter – in most locations, such messages are now required to include an opt-out option. If you place them in your spam folder instead, you confuse your inbox filter unnecessarily and you may miss future messages from that company that you wish to receive.  
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