How Spammers Get Your Address

E-mail spammers do not get your address because you’re on the distribution list of legitimate e-mail publications. These days, no legitimate mailing list is completely unsecured (where anyone can grab the list of subscribers). Most online publishers use high-quality distribution software that is quite secure. My own This is True, for instance, uses commercial-grade mail handling systems which have excellent list security.

If you’re on a e-mail newsletter or discussion list, how do you know if the list is secure? If you can retrieve a list of every member of a list you’re on, so can a spammer. It doesn’t help to make list access “for subscribers only.” What’s to keep a spammer from subscribing, grabbing the list, and leaving?

Of course the key there is “legitimate” e-mail publications. If you’re not sure, check the publication’s web site for a privacy policy. For example, This is True‘s privacy policy explicitly states that we do not ever sell, rent, give, or otherwise provide our subscriber addresses to outside parties, whether or not we think they’re legitimate.

So where do spammers get your address? The number one place used to be posts on Usenet newsgroups (also called “discussion groups” on some systems, “bulletin boards” on others). Newsgroups are “publicly” readable; whether you post your message on your local ISP or on a major ’net service, your message can be spread worldwide by Usenet in a matter of hours, and it — with your posting address — is easily sucked up by advertisers.

The current most-common place to get your address is from web pages. If your e-mail address is listed on a web page anywhere on the Internet, especially if that page is listed in a search engine or directory, spammers will find it, and fairly quickly. Tip: try searching for your own e-mail address in Google (put quotes around it — like “name@example.com”). If you can find your address there, spammers can too — easily.

Spammers “harvest” fresh addresses by going to web sites and “scanning” for e-mail addresses anywhere on the site. I’ve seen the scanners in operation, and it’s amazing how quickly they work. The software can, for instance, ask a search engine for any page that has the word “cat” in it and grab the addresses off those pages for a “targeted” list of people with a presumed interest in cats. It takes only minutes to gather thousands of addresses. Of course, how “targeted” that list might be is a matter of opinion. A “cat” might refer to a feline animal, a tractor, an abbreviation for “category,” etc. But spammers don’t really care if you’re interested in their message or not. The key, for them, is to blast out their nonsense to as many people as possible because a very tiny percentage of them will be stupid enough to fall for their ad and send them money. That is their only goal — they don’t care how many people they offend in the meantime.

Next Topic: Keeping Your Address Off Spammers’ Lists