What is Spam?

Spam is usually considered to be emails that are junk, unsolicited or irrelevant, typically sent to large numbers of users indiscriminately, for the purposes of advertising, phishing or spreading malware, to name a few.

Mail servers are charged with the difficult task of detecting and labelling these unwanted emails, and a difficult task it can be!

SpamAssassin, the anti-spam filter installed on the WebClick hosting platform, is software for analysing email messages, determining how likely they are to be spam, and reporting its conclusions. It is a rule-based system that compares different parts of email messages with a large set of rules. Each rule adds or removes points from a message's spam score. A message with a high enough score is reported to be spam.

SpamAssassin doesn't natively block spam. Instead, it tags messages as probable spam by changing the Subject line and message headers. This is very wise: no automated system can recognise spam with 100% certainty - deciding "what is spam" is a judgment call. All automated spam filters will produce some false positives (wanted email mistakenly tagged as spam) and false negatives (spam not identified as such).

If you are concerned by the level of spam that you are receiving, feel free to get in contact with us for assistance and advice with lowering your spam filter threshold. Otherwise, if this was mostly a once off or you only receive a few spam emails per day, there's probably not much to be gained from adjusting your spam filter settings due to the risk of legitimate emails being caught. If you do get in contact with us, we will need you to extract information from these emails called message headers to help us determine what level your filter could be safely increased to.

Related KnowledgeBase Article

Retrieving Message Headers

A lot of our clients ask us "Why are spammers sending these emails to me? I'm never going to buy anything from them, I just want them to stop!". The answer is that if you have an email address, you will receive spam. Most spam emails are sent to millions of randomly generated email addresses, just hoping to hit a real email address. If you put your email address anywhere on the internet, it is perceived to be a real email address and can be collected and added to a database full of email addresses also harvested off the internet. And you will receive more spam.

What is the Purpose of Spam?

There are many, many reasons for sending spam email. What it mostly boils down to to is making money, although not always in the most obvious methods. Email spamming is a low cost business with almost no overheads, so most of the money made is profit. The programmers directly responsible for generating the spam emails are also not usually the ones benefiting from it. Companies wouldn't do this directly - most countries have a spam act to make generating spam illegal. However, they can contract third parties to run these information gathering campaigns for them.

During a high-brow dinner party conversation with friends you may disavow the concept of spam, and rightly so. However, it is an interesting fact that at one time or another, people in a position of needing to reach a large, unknown audience (such as small business owners running a company in a niche industry) may think "if only there was a way for me to have access to everyone's email address - surely then I could contact the whole world and my business will be a success!". Now this may sound a tad hyperbolic and free enterprise dictates that businesses are able to promote their products and services to potential customers. However, spammers have taken this thought and run far and wide with it.

Email Address Harvesting

Spammers often are aiming to simply find all the active email addresses in use in the world, so that these email addresses can be used to send information about various products and services. The best way to do this is to send an email to each email address! Consider the scenario below:

The spammers send an email to ten people. One of these emails bounces (doesn't make it to the inbox and sends back a failure notification to the sender). Now the spammer has nine email addresses that are confirmed to exist.

Two of the people who received the email reply to the email. One says "Thanks for sharing this important information with me, I am interested in your product!" and the other says "Please don't send me any more of these emails, thank you" (expletives removed). Bingo, the spammer now knows that at the end of these email addresses are real life humans who are receiving their messages. Cue more spam.

By responding to the email, the spammer now knows the email address is active. If a reply hadn't been sent, all the spammer would be able to know is that he didn't receive a failure notice, with no confirmed action from the other end - he has no way of knowing if his message is getting through or not. More importantly, the email address is now flagged in this persons email program and future spam emails from this person are less likely to be marked as spam.

It is also possible to embed a spam messages contain a one-pixel-by-one-pixel image with a trackback URL; as soon as you view the message, they get pinged that this particular pixel was viewed - Bingo as above. That's the reason many modern mail clients warn you about images in messages and suggest you don't view the images unless you trust the source.

So out of these 10 email address, nine are confirmed to exist and at least two of these addresses are confirmed to exist AND be active. The spammer has the information they need.

Advertising & Income Generation

Many emails are sent to advertise a product - we've all seen the emails for Viagra. In the same way that there are ads on TV and on the radio, there are ads in your email. It's just subject to far less regulation.

There are people out there who are scammed into purchasing these advertised items. Now the spammer has made money from the email. As we said earlier, sending spam is a very low cost business. This makes it worth their while, even considering the relatively small number of people who buy into their scheme.

Malicious Data Transmission

Some emails contain viruses, tracking cookies or phishing scams that can be stored to your computer. If you open these emails and allow these scripts to run, you could find that your computer might be used to retrieve your personal online information or as a proxy to generate more spam email through your email program.

Overload Mail Servers & Consume Resources

Spam emails are responsible for hundreds of thousands dollars in lost income and productivity for companies worldwide. The people constantly deleting the spam lose time. The people sending legitimate marketing emails to subscribers of their mailing lists lose the impact of their products and services when their emails is mixed up with the constant inflow of spam. Systems and Network Administrators lose time managing anti-spam capabilities of mail servers and cleaning up after any spam attacks. The list goes on.

Sometimes spamming can be a viable method of attacking a server. If your website or email address gets hacked or your computer email program gets a virus and is used to generate spam emails, this can put severe strain on a systems' mail server. Thousands of emails can be sent every hour, which requires processing by the mail server in addition to all the mail already being sent through the server. If the target email addresses do not exist, a failure message is then sent back, which doubles the amount of emails being processed by the already taxed server. It doesn't take long to overload the server and completely disrupt the mail service. These attacks can be easy to detect and shut down by Network Administrators, but not before causing significant damage. It is likely that other servers around the world will detect the spam attack and blacklist the originating server, causing mail servers to reject all sent emails until the server has been determined to be spam free. In this time, legitimate emails being sent by people using that server are rejected due to the poor reputation of their mail server, so the flow-on effect of running a spam attack on a mail server can be felt for many weeks.

"Why did this spam email make it through your filter? It is clearly spam!"

This is one of the most commonly asked questions here at the WebClick Support Desk. And it is usually one that we are unable to answer to our clients satisfaction (if we're going to be totally honest with you, as much as it pains us to admit it).

In each WebClick hosting account, every email address is assigned a minimum spam score threshold that each incoming email must meet in order to be marked as spam. 7.0 is the default, minimum spam score that needs to be achieved per email that is sent to your email account (unless it has been adjusted by either you, or our support team during a spam investigation). This threshold can be set lower (or higher) depending on your particular needs and preferences, however this does significantly increase the risk that false positives will occur.

Generally speaking, to receive less spam, you would lower the required spam score (ie, set the number 6 or 5 or lower, assuming your threshold is currently still set to 7). All emails coming into your inbox that receive a spam score higher than 5 or 6 will be marked as spam. If you are finding that some legitimate emails are being marked as spam, you would want to set the required spam score higher (ie, set the number to 8 or 9 or higher, assuming your threshold is currently still set to 7), to make the filter more lenient and allow more emails through.

There are hundreds of triggers that SpamAssassin check each email against to determine the score for each email. Not all triggers are scored equally - some of the more serious triggers may earn 5 or more points, where as some may only contribute a fraction of a point.

For example, using capitals in the email body for more than 50-75% of the content can earn you as much as one point and a half on the test. Sending from an email address that ends in a digit (eg, email01@domain.com) can earn you up to half a point. And if the email is sent via a poorly coded contact form on your website, the email could earn up to three or four points very quickly. Combine that with a few other triggers & a low threshold and suddenly most of the emails you receive have the potential to be marked as spam.

Spammers know what these triggers are. Spammers know how to construct messages that can bypass your spam filter. For them, the more emails that successfully hit an inbox, the better.

If you've received a spam email, chances are it legitimately made it through the spam filter, scoring lower than the required detection threshold. Some spam emails may be so perfectly constructed that they have a score of 0!

But not all of them will. The information is all there in the message headers that are transmitted with each email. With just a little understanding, you can read these message headers to determine whether that email could have been detected by the spam filter with some small tweaks to the minimum spam score threshold. We have an article that explains message headers and how to read them. This could go a long way to helping you understand your spam problem and how to prevent it.

Related KnowledgeBase Article

Understanding Message Headers

Flags a Spam Filter CAN'T Check For

Geographic location

Yes, it's true that most of the spam you receive is probably generated from overseas. However, it is a definitive truth that the internet has shrunk the world. It is now incredibly common for an Australian company to have a website developed in the Philippines that is hosted in the United States, South America or Eastern Europe. Banning all incoming mail from overseas is just simply not an accurate flag for detecting whether an email is spam!

It is simply not possible to block all incoming mail from a particular country from being received by a mail server. There are other variables that can be used to block individual emails from getting through, such as IP address or email address, however imposing a general block based on the country of origin is just not achievable.

Email Address

Most spammers will change their email address on a regular basis, or simply make a spoof of a fake email address. If you have received the same spam email from the same sending email, consider yourself lucky! Your email hosting settings includes a blacklist, which you can update yourself. If you are constantly getting emails from the same email, make use of your blacklist by logging into the control panel and adding the individual email address to the blacklist and enjoy the peace and quiet in your inbox. Otherwise, there is really no way to examine all the email addresses in the world to determine whether it should be blocked at a server level.

Foreign Language

Email cannot be filtered based on whether the email is written in English or not. Australia is delightfully multicultural - your German neighbours may not appreciate not being able to receive their annual Christmas family photo from their expatriated relatives living in China!

How to Reduce Spam in your Inbox

It is important to note that detecting spam is not a hard and fast science and requires constant work to ensure that your inbox remains junk free. It is likely that you will be required to take action such as adjusting the spam filter threshold, updating blacklists with email addresses regularly sending you unwanted email or setting up your email account in a way that will help it train the mail server.


IMAP is a mail protocol. By setting your email account up as IMAP in your mail program, you can train the spam filter in your hosting account to recognise the patterns in the emails you mark as junk mail, which will help it determine what you are likely to consider spam.

Decrease the anti-spam filter threshold

Setting the required spam score lower through your hosting account will catch more spam. However, be careful, as it may start catching more legitimate emails.

Don't respond to suspected spam emails

Replying to a spam email, even to ask them to unsubscribe you, sends the message straight to the spammers that they caught a real-life, in-use address. Success for them! Unfortunately, being polite and requesting they stop sending you emails will not work in this case!

Update your account blacklist

Each email account in your hosting account has a blacklist attached to it. If you receive multiple email items from a common email address, add it to your blacklist to stop it reaching your inbox altogther.

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