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SCARS|RSN™ Guide: The Difference Between Spam Emails And Phishing Emails

In The World Of Scams, Terms Are Often Confused And Then Shared Incorrectly

This creates confusion over what we mean when we talk about specific scams, such as spam emails and the various types of phishing emails.

First – We Hate Them Both

Although both spam emails and phishing emails are unwanted incoming communications, they are completely different.


Email spam, also known as junk email, is unsolicited messages sent in bulk by email (spamming).

Spam email is unauthorized marketing or advertising communication sent to your inbox. Most spam is honest – providing an offer or advantage for legitimate product or service. However, not all spam is honest. A significant percentage of spam are scams! Scams as in the garden variety of fraud – misrepresentations or outright cons.

Typical Spam Email

Typical Spam Email

The name comes from Spam luncheon meat by way of a Monty Python sketch in which Spam is ubiquitous, unavoidable and repetitive. Yes, Monty Python names spam!

Email spam has steadily grown since the early 1990s, and by 2014 was estimated that it made up around 90% of email messages sent. Since the expense of the spam is borne mostly by the recipient (in the form of time spent screening, sorting, and disposing of), it is effectively postage due advertising. This makes it an excellent example of a negative externality.

The legal definition and status of spam vary from one jurisdiction to another, but laws and lawsuits have nowhere been particularly successful in stemming spam. Though the SCARS Proposal for Changes to the U.S. CDA Law » may positively impact it.

Most email spam messages are commercial in nature. Whether commercial or not, many are not only annoying but also dangerous because they may contain links that lead to phishing web sites or sites that are hosting malware – or include malware as file attachments. [see below]

Spammers collect email addresses from chat rooms, websites, customer lists, newsgroups, and viruses that harvest users’ address books. These collected email addresses are sometimes also sold to other spammers.

Spam filters were built to capture these emails. Think of what is currently in your Spam filter. You have people selling you things that you didn’t ask for, or emails that make zero sense. Recipients of spam most likely had their email addresses obtained by spambots. These are automated programs that crawl the internet looking for email addresses. From there, spammers create email distribution lists and send emails to millions of addresses. Some examples of spam emails are weight loss programs, discounted pharmaceuticals, or job opportunities.


You are all familiar with the Nigerian Prince style emails. Offering millions in exchange for a small Advance Fee. Of course, these are scams and easy to recognize. Much harder are some of the more subtle forms of these.