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Where does SPAM come from, and how do we stop it?

Almost everyone with an email account will have all experienced SPAM – stupid, pointless, annoying messages. Email filters tend to block most of them (I know Gmail does a very good job), but sometimes a message from a faux African Prince will slip into your inbox. But where does this supply of limitless messages come from?

In fact, half of the junk mail in the world originates from just 20 internet service providers (ISPs), concentrated in India, Vietnam and Brazil. And the most crime-ridden network – spookily called Spectranet – resides in Nigeria, where 62% of all internet addresses on the service were recorded as sending out SPAM.

There are also regional differences in the types of message sent and received. Asian ISPs, for example, tend to have more sales-based SPAM messages, while the majority of attacks that try to steal your personal details come from American ISPs. Indian network BSNL has the unfortunate honour of being the world’s biggest source of SPAM. Ouch.

Unfortunately, while it’s relatively easy to scan ISPs to find where SPAM is sent from, it’s much more difficult to find the original source. This is because spammers tend to hide their actual location. Think of it like sending a letter – if you fly to France and post some mail, people will be able to tell that’s where the letter was sent from, but not your actual country of residence.

Criminals tend to start SPAM networks on different ISPs in completely different countries, but use technology to forward their messages through other people’s computers.

For example, some malware is programmed to infect computers and turn them into SPAM nodes. These node-computers then send out SPAM to other people (usually people on that computer’s contact list). A copy of the malware is also attached to infect the other computers, and the spread continues.

Therefore some of the worst offending ISPs could be caused by insecure computers left open to viruses, rather than lots of bad people. In countries with high instances of software piracy – such as India – this is amplified further, as many pieces of pirate software come complete with added malware.

So what to do we about it? Well, a key solution is for the authorities to locate the computers on these ISPs and shut them down. However, this could be very difficult with police organisations operating very differently in different countries.

A more grassroots solutions would be to improve computer security across the world, reducing malware infections and the number of node computers.

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