Silhouette of a hacker looking in monitor

Silhouette of a hacker looking in monitor.

Think you are safe? The Internet is filled with spam, scams and criminals.

Words: Eeva Haaramo // Photo: iStock

In 2004 then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates announced email spam would be solved within two years. Twelve years later? Spam is still here. There is even an email claiming you have been donated USD 5 million from Bill Gates himself, which has been circulating for several years.

But Gates wasn’t completely mistaken. Security company Symantec notes that in June 2015 the overall ‘spam rate’ dropped below 50 % of all sent email for the first time in over a decade. If this sounds high, during peak years it was over
90 %. Still, we shouldn’t feel too relaxed.

You might not be fooled by your ‘boss’ asking you to wire money to China, promises to lose 10 kilos in five days and offers to sell cheap Rolexes, but the losses from email scams remain huge. In the last two years the FBI estimates companies have lost over USD 1.2 billion to Business Email Compromises (BEC), i.e. scams targeted at employees and executives.

And if you still wonder whether a Nigerian presidential candidate would really give you millions for your support, keep in mind that so-called ‘Nigerian emails’ often use topical, global events in their scams to make them more convincing. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia most of them don’t even originate from Nigeria.

Finally, it might not be spam, but the free Wi-Fi at your favourite coffee shop that gets you. In January a supervised experiment saw an IT-savvy seven-year-old hack an open Wi-Fi network in under 11 minutes, allowing her to access emails and browser data. All she needed were hacking instructions found in a Google search.

Why it matters

Common online threats.

A lot has happened since 1994, when the first commercial spam email was allegedly sent. While some spam today is little more than junk marketing, it can also come attached with viruses and spyware that try to infect your computer or steal data. Furthermore, phishing emails and websites pretending to come from our banks, business partners or other trusted organisations are increasingly convincing. In 2014 a Google study found 14 % of visitors to fake websites submitted the requested information, such as passwords, while the most realistic phishing sites worked a shocking 45 % of the time.

Do online scams pay off? Today most spam doesn’t even get to our inboxes, thanks to effective spam filtering. There has also been increased legal action taken against scammers. In one notable success from 2006, a Florida spammer was sentenced to pay a whopping USD 11.2 billion to an Internet services provider for sending 280 million emails. Still in many cases legal action is difficult and the opportunity to easily reach millions of potential victims remains tempting to many. It only takes a few dozen people to click on a fake link, open a malicious attachment or pay for a non-existing product for a scammer to have a good payday.

In the world of information security, caution is rewarded.