The curse of email is that it’s too easy to send nonspecific content to large groups, meaning it’s generally in everyone’s interests to avoid getting any more. How often do you have to parse some online form where you need to leave the checked checkbox unchecked if you’d like to remain not signed up to receive specially selected offers from our carefully chosen partners?
That said, email distribution lists were an early form of mass collaboration – powered by the likes of LISTSERV, where online communities formed, in some ways an alternative to USENET and the web forums that now host many interest groups online. In the days of LISTSERV, email volumes would be relatively low, and it provided a simple distribution system that fired mail out to everyone on the list, and people could easily join and leave, by simply mailing a JOIN or LEAVE command to the address.
Next time there’s an internal company email storm (the famous Bedlam DL3 storm at Microsoft occurred just over 20 years ago), it’s not necessarily counter-intuitive for people to respond in the “take me off this list” manner, even though the perpetrators themselves are probably unaware of that.
If you find yourself getting unwanted email from marketeers or newsletters you’re not interested in, there are a variety of ways of opting-out – most kosher bulk email tools will allow you to unsubscribe with a link at the bottom; if the email is completely unsolicited, however, then clicking on an “unsubscribe” link in a spam message might just mark you as a real person, and you’ll get even more spam in future. If in doubt, you might want to rely on some of the built-in tools within Outlook, to protect you from further spammage.
3rd party bulk unsubscribe tools like https://unroll.me/ might help clean up subscriptions for consumer mail platforms like Outlook.com, Gmail etc, though exercise with caution as there’s always a risk they’ll just be exposing your data to people you shouldn’t.
Though aggregated news apps and websites are ten-a-penny, there are some very good resources out there that are worth signing up to receive mail from – for example…
Most people don’t really pay much attention to where emails originate from or how they got to be in your inbox. This is clearly exploited by scammers and spammers of all sorts, as many consumers will happily click on a link in a genuine- looking email and not think twice about the fact that it might not be all it seems.
Anti-spam technology has improved a lot in the last decade, so a lot of the obvious junk mail is filtered out before it arrives, or if it makes it as far as your mailbox, it’ll be dropped into your Junk Mail folder. But even though the crooks have gotten more sophisticated, sometimes fishy-looking email is still delivered, but clearly marked as probably not safe, as there are tell-tale signs of it not being genuine.
Here’s an example of a typical “phishing” email that’s trying to lure the recipient into clicking a link to a website they think is their bank, Ebay, PayPal etc. etc.
In this case, the URL is shown at the bottom of the window by hovering over it (the mouse pointer doesn’t show up in the screen capture, but it was over the “Update” button). This doesn’t look like a genuine URL; ditto, anything that is displayed in the text as (for example) https://login.youraccount.com but when you hover, you’ll find it’s some other URL. Some scammers are increasingly using TinyURL, Bit.ly or other URL-shortening services to try to hide their obvious dodginess.
Many email programs (like the standard Windows 8 Mail client) try to hide complexity from end users, but if you hover over a link, it will show the URL in a pop-up.
There are other scenarios, though, where the sender isn’t purporting to be a large institution or other supposedly trustworthy source. Maybe you’re selling something and a potential buyer contacts you to offer a quick cash purchase, sometimes in tandem with an overly complicated arrangement of an agent coming to collect your goods, in exchange for some online means of payment. If your Spidey-sense doesn’t pick up a slightly iffy premise to these kinds of offers, then there might be other ways of tracking down the sender.
Every email comes with an “envelope” – it’s actually like a routing slip attached to the block of data that makes up the main body of the message, and every time a computer (like an internet mail server) handles the message, it adds some kind of marker on the routing slip. The most recent markers on the message “headers” are at the top, so to find out where it really came from, parse down and look for the earliest point in the header that shows where the message originated.
To see the detail on a message, you’ll need to use a mail client such as Outlook or Windows Live Mail (if you’re using Outlook.com/Hotmail etc, or Gmail), and look at the properties of the message.
In Outlook, open the message in its own window, then go into File / Properties and you’ll see Internet Headers – if the message came from outside the company, this is the key to your sleuthing. Select all the text and right-click to copy it into the clipboard, and paste it into Notepad for easier viewing.
The header information might be incomprehensible (there are plenty of guides online that can help you make sense, if you’re all that interested), and in fact, much of the text could be faked – but it often gives some interesting breadcrumbs.
Above is the header of a message that’s a tad suspect – viewed in Windows Live Mail (open the message, look in File / Properties and look in the Details tab). Looking down the headers, we can see the message originally was sent to Yahoo, and it was handed over to the Yahoo mail service by the IP address listed:
Received: from [220.127.116.11] by web172005.mail.ir2.yahoo.com via HTTP; Wed, 09 Jul 2014 13:19:54 BST
The sender, who’s offering to buy a car in this case, purports to be in Aberdeen. Now let’s just see where this address is by pasting the source IP address (41.220 etc) into the box on the top right of www.whatismyipaddress.com – or put the IP address into the URL, like here.
Doesn’t look a lot like Aberdeen, does it?