How do spammers harvest email addresses ?

By Uri Raz

There are many ways in which spammers can get your email address. The ones I know of are :

  1. From posts to UseNet with your email address.

    Spammers regularily scan UseNet for email address, using ready made programs designed to do so. Some programs just look at articles headers which contain email address (From:, Reply-To:, etc), while other programs check the articles' bodies, starting with programs that look at signatures, through programs that take everything that contain a '@' character and attempt to demunge munged email addresses.

    There have been reports of spammers demunging email addresses on occasions, ranging from demunging a single address for purposes of revenge spamming to automatic methods that try to unmunge email addresses that were munged in some common ways, e.g. remove such strings as 'nospam' from email addresses.

    As people who where spammed frequently report that spam frequency to their mailbox dropped sharply after a period in which they did not post to UseNet, as well as evidence to spammers' chase after 'fresh' and 'live' addresses, this technique seems to be the primary source of email addresses for spammers.

  2. From mailing lists.

    Spammers regularily attempt to get the lists of subscribers to mailing lists [some mail servers will give those upon request],knowing that the email addresses are unmunged and that only a few of the addresses are invalid.

    When mail servers are configured to refuse such requests, another trick might be used - spammers might send an email to the mailing list with the headers Return-Receipt-To: <email address> or X-Confirm-Reading-To: <email address>. Those headers would cause some mail transfer agents and reading programs to send email back to the <email address> saying that the email was delivered to / read at a given email address, divulging it to spammers.

    A different technique used by spammers is to request a mailing lists server to give him the list of all mailing lists it carries (an option implemented by some mailing list servers for the convenience of legitimate users), and then send the spam to the mailing list's address, leaving the server to do the hard work of forwarding a copy to each subscribed email address.

    [I know spammers use this trick from bad experience - some spammer used this trick on the list server of the company for which I work, easily covering most of the employees, including employees working well under a month and whose email addresses would be hard to findin other ways.]

  3. From web pages.

    Spammers have programs which spider through web pages, looking for email addresses, e.g. email addresses contained in mailto: HTML tags [those you can click on and get a mail window opened]

    Some spammers even target their mail based on web pages. I've discovered a web page of mine appeared in Yahoo as some spammer harvested email addresses from each new page appearing in Yahoo and sent me a spam regarding that web page.

    A widely used technique to fight this technique is the 'poison' CGI script. The script creates a page with several bogus email addresses and a link to itself. Spammers' software visiting the page would harvest the bogus email addresses and follow up the link, entering an infinite loop polluting their lists with bogus email addresses.

    For more information about the poision script, see http://www.monkeys.com/wpoison/

  4. From various web and paper forms.

    Some sites request various details via forms, e.g. guest books & registrations forms. Spammers can get email addresses from those either because the form becomes available on the world wide web, or because the site sells / gives the emails list to others.

    Some companies would sell / give email lists filled in on paper forms, e.g. organizers of conventions would make a list of participants' email addresses, and sell it when it's no longer needed.

    Some spammers would actually type E-mail addresses from printed material, e.g. professional directories & conference proceedings.

    Domain name registration forms are a favourite as well - addresses are most usually correct and updated, and people read the emails sent to them expecting important messages.

  5. Via an Ident daemon.

    Many unix computers run a daemon (a program which runs in the background, initiated by the system administrator), intended to allow other computers to identify people who connect to them.

    When a person surfs from such a computer connects to a web site or news server, the site or server can connect the person's computer back and ask that daemon's for the person's email address.

    Some chat clients on PCs behave similarily, so using IRC can cause an email address to be given out to spammers.

  6. From a web browser.

    Some sites use various tricks to extract a surfer's email address from the web browser, sometimes without the surfer noticing it. Those techniques include :

    1. Making the browser fetch one of the page's images through an anonymous FTP connection to the site.

      Some browsers would give the email address the user has configured into the browser as the password for the anonymous FTP account. A surfer not aware of this technique will not notice that the email address has leaked.

    2. Using JavaScript to make the browser send an email to a chosen email address with the email address configured into the browser.

      Some browsers would allow email to be sent when the mouse passes over some part of a page. Unless the browser is properly configured, no warning will be issued.

    3. Using the HTTP_FROM header that browsers send to the server.

      Some browsers pass a header with your email address to every web server you visit. To check if your browser simply gives your email address to everybody this way, visit http://www.cs.rochester.edu/u/ferguson/BrowserCheck.cgi

    It's worth noting here that when one reads E-mail with a browser (or any mail reader that understands HTML), the reader should be aware of active content (Java applets, Javascript, VB, etc) as well as web bugs.

    An E-mail containing HTML may contain a script that upon being read (or even the subject being highlighted) automatically sends E-mail to any E-mail addresses. A good example of this case is the Melissa virus. Such a script could send the spammer not only the reader's E-mail address but all the addresses on the reader's address book.
    http://www.cert.org/advisories/CA-99-04-Melissa-Macro-Virus.html

    A web bugs FAQ by Richard M. Smith can be read at http://www.tiac.net/users/smiths/privacy/wbfaq.htm

  7. From IRC and chat rooms.

    Some IRC clients will give a user's email address to anyone who cares to ask it. Many spammers harvest email addresses from IRC, knowing that those are 'live' addresses and send spam to those email addresses.

    This method is used beside the annoying IRCbots that send messages interactively to IRC and chat rooms without attempting to recognize who is participating in the first place.

    This is another major source of email addresses for spammers, especially as this is one of the first public activities newbies join, making it easy for spammers to harvest 'fresh' addresses of people who might have very little experience dealing with spam.

    AOL chat rooms are the most popular of those - according to reports there's a utility that can get the screen names of participants in AOL chat rooms. The utility is reported to be specialized for AOL due to two main reasons - AOL makes the list of the actively participating users' screen names available and AOL users are considered prime targets by spammers due to the reputation of AOL as being the ISP of choice by newbies.

  8. From finger daemons.

    Some finger daemons are set to be very friendly - a finger query asking for john@host will produce list info including login names for all people named John on that host. A query for @host will produce a list of all currently logged-on users.

    Spammers use this information to get extensive users list from hosts, and of active accounts - ones which are 'live' and will read their mail soon enough to be really attractive spam targets.

  9. AOL profiles.

    Spammers harvest AOL names from user profiles lists, as it allows them to 'target' their mailing lists. Also, AOL has a name being the choice ISP of newbies, who might not know how to recognize scams or know how to handle spam.

  10. From domain contact points.

    Every domain has one to three contact points - administration, technical, and billing. The contact point includes the email address of the contact person.

    As the contact points are freely available, e.g. using the 'whois' command, spammers harvest the email addresses from the contact points for lists of domains (the list of domain is usually made available to the public by the domain registries). This is a tempting methods for spammers, as those email addresses are most usually valid and mail sent to it is being read regularily.

  11. By guessing & cleaning.

    Some spammers guess email addresses, send a test message (or a real spam) to a list which includes the guessed addresses. Then they wait for either an error message to return by email, indicating that the email address is correct, or for a confirmation. A confirmation could be solicited by inserting non-standard but commonly used mail headers requesting that the delivery system and/or mail client send a confirmation of delivery or reading. No news are, of coures, good news for the spammer.

    Specifically, the headers are -
     Return-Receipt-To: <email-address> which causes a delivery confirmation to be sent, and
     X-Confirm-Reading-To: <email-address> which causes a reading confirmation to be sent.

    Another method of confirming valid email addresses is sending HTML in the email's body (that is sending a web page as the email's content), and embedding in the HTML an image. Mail clients that decode HTML, e.g. as Outlook and Eudora do in the preview pane, will attempt fetching the image - and some spammers put the recipient's email address in the image's URL, and check the web server's log for the email addresses of recipients who viewed the spam.

    So it's good advice to set the mail client to *not* preview rich media emails, which would protect the recipient from both accidently confirming their email addresses to spammers and viruses.

    Guessing could be done based on the fact that email addresses are based on people's names, usually in commonly used ways (first.last@domain or an initial of one name followed / preceded by the other @domain)

    Also, some email addresses are standard - postmaster is mandated by the RFCs for internet mail. Other common email addresses are postmaster, hostmaster, root [for unix hosts], etc.

  12. From white & yellow pages.

    There are various sites that serve as white pages, sometimes named people finders web sites. Yellow pages now have an email directory on the web.

    Those white/yellow pages contain addresses from various sources, e.g. from UseNet, but sometimes your E-mail address will be registered for you. Example - HotMail will add E-mail addresses to BigFoot by default, making new addresses available to the public.

    Spammers go through those directories in order to get email addresses. Most directories prohibit email address harvesting by spammers, but as those databases have a large databases of email addresses + names, it's a tempting target for spammers.

  13. By having access to the same computer.

    If a spammer has an access to a computer, he can usually get a list of valid usernames (and therefore email addresses) on that computer.

    On unix computers the users file (/etc/passwd) is commonly world readable, and the list of currently logged-in users is listed via the 'who' command.

  14. From a previous owner of the email address.

    An email address might have been owned by someone else, who disposed of it. This might happen with dialup usernames at ISPs - somebody signs up for an ISP, has his/her email address harvested by spammers, and cancel the account. When somebody else signs up with the same ISP with the same username, spammers already know of it.

    Similar things can happen with AOL screen names - somebody uses a screen name, gets tired of it, releases it. Later on somebody else might take the same screen name.

  15. Using social engineering.

    This method means the spammer uses a hoax to convince peopleinto giving him valid E-mail addresses.

  16. A good example is Richard Douche's "Free CD's" chain letter. The letter promises a free CD for every person to whom the letter is forwarded to as long as it is CC'ed to Richard.

    Richard claimed to be associated with Amazon and Music blvd, among other companies, who authorized him to make this offer. Yet hesupplied no references to web pages and used a free E-mail address.

    All Richard wanted was to get people to send him valid E-mail addresses in order to build a list of addresses to spam and/or sell.

  17. From the address book and emails on other people's computers.

    Some viruses & worms spread by emailing themselves to all the email addresses they can find in the email address book. As some people forward jokes and other material by email to their friends, putting their friends' email addresses on either the To: or Cc: fields, rather than the BCc: field, some viruses and warms scan the mail folders for email addresses that are not in the address book, in hope to hit addresses the computer owner's friends' friends, friends' friends' friends, etc.

    If it wasn't already done, it's just a matter of time before such malware will not only spam copies of itself, but also send the extracted list of email addresses to it's creator.

    As invisible email addresses can't be harvested, it's good advice to have the email addresesses of recipients of jokes & the like on BCc:, and if forwarded from somebody else remove from the email's body all the email addresses inserted by the previous sender.

  18. Buying lists from others.

    This one covers two types of trades. The first type consists of buying a list of email addresses (often on CD) that were harvested via other methods, e.g. someone harvesting email addresses from UseNet and sells the list either to a company that wishes to advertise via email (sometimes passing off the list as that of people who opted-in for emailed advertisements) or to others who resell the list.

    The second type consists of a company who got the email addresses legitimately (e.g. a magazine that asks subscribers for their email in order to keep in touch over the Internet) and sells the list for the extra income. This extends to selling of email addresses acompany got via other means, e.g. people who just emailed the companywith inquiries in any context.

    The third type consist of technical staff selling the email address for money to spammers. There was a news story about an AOL employee who sold AOL email addresses to a spammer.

  19. By hacking into sites.

    I've heard rumours that sites that supply free email addresses were hacked in order to get the list of email addresses, somewhatlike e-commerce sites being hacked to get a list of credit cards.

If your address was harvested and you get spammed, the following pages could assist you in tracking the spammer down :

  1. MindSpring's page explaining how to get an email's headers
    http://help.mindspring.com/features/emailheaders/extended.htm

  2. The spam FAQ, maintained by Ken Hollis.
    http://digital.net/~gandalf/spamfaq.html
    http://www.cs.ruu.nl/wais/html/na-dir/net-abuse-faq/spam-faq.html

  3. The Reporting Spam page, an excellent resource.
    http://www.ao.net/waytosuccess/

  4. Reading Mail headers.
    http://www.stopspam.org/email/headers/headers.html

  5. Julian Haight's Spam Cop page.
    http://spamcop.net/

  6. Chris Hibbert's Junk Mail FAQ.
    http://www.fortnet.org/WidowNet/faqs/junkmail.htm

  7. Sam Spade, Spam hunter.
    http://samspade.org/

  8. Penn's Page of Spam.
    http://home.att.net/~penn/spam.htm

  9. WD Baseley's Address Munging FAQ
    http://members.aol.com/emailfaq/mungfaq.html

  10. Fight Spam on the Internet site
    http://spam.abuse.net/

  11. The Spam Recycling Center
    http://www.spamrecycle.com/

  12. The Junk Busters Site
    http://www.junkbusters.com/

  13. The Junk Email site
    http://www.junkemail.org/

  14. BCP 30: Anti-Spam Recommendations for SMTP MTAs
    http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/bcp/bcp30.html

  15. FYI 28: Netiquette Guidelines
    http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/fyi/fyi28.html

    FYI 35: DON'T SPEW
    A Set of Guidelines for Mass Unsolicited Mailings and Postings
    http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/fyi/fyi35.html

Several sites on the web will help in tracing spam :

  1. Pete Bowden's list of traceroute gateways
    http://www.missing.com/traceroute.html
    To find traceroute gateways in any country, visit here.
    http://www.traceroute.org/

  2. Allwhois.com gates to whois on any domain world-wide
    http://www.allwhois.com/

  3. A list of whois servers, collected by Matt Power
    ftp://sipb.mit.edu/pub/whois/whois-servers.list

  4. Alldomains.com site - links to NICs worldwide.
    http://www.alldomains.com/
    A similar page can be found at
    http://www.forumnett.no/domreg.html

  5. The Coalition Against Usolicited Commerical E-mail.
    http://www.cauce.org/
    The European CAUCE.
    http://www.euro.cauce.org/en/index.html
    The Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Email, Australia.
    http://www.caube.org.au/
    The Russian Anti-Spam organization.
    http://www.antispam.ru/

  6. No More Spam - ISP Spam-Blocking Interferes With Business
    http://www.byte.com/columns/digitalbiz/1999/04/0405coombs.html

  7. Removing the Spam, By Geoff Mulligan, Published by Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-201-37957-0
    A good book about handling spam.

Legal resources :

  1. FTC Consumer Alert - FTC Names Its Dirty Dozen: 12 Scams Most Likely to Arrive Via Bulk email
    http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/doznalrt.htm

  2. Report to the Federal Trade Commision of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Unsolicited Commercial Mail. http://www.cdt.org/paper/report-federal-trade-commission-ad-hoc-working-group-unsolicited-commercial-email?quicktabs_4=1

  3. Pyramid Schemes, Ponzi Schemes, and Related Frauds
    http://www.impulse.net/~thebob/Pyramid.html

  4. The AOL vs. Cyberpromo case
    http://legal.web.aol.com/decisions/dljunk/cyber.html

    Nine New Lawsuits Press Release.
    http://legal.web.aol.com/decisions/dljunk/ninepress.html

  5. "Intel scores in email suit", by Jim Hu, CNET News.com.
    http://www.news.com/News/Item/0,4,29574,00.html?st.ne.ni.lh

  6. The John Marshall Law School spam page
    http://www.jmls.edu/cyber/index/spam.html

  7. First amendment issues related to UBE, by Paul L. Schmehl.
    http://www.utdallas.edu/~pauls/spam_law.html

  8. U.S. Anti-Spam Laws
    http://www.the-dma.org/antispam/statespamlaws.shtml

  9. The UK Data Protection Law
    http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk/

  10. The Italian Anti-Spam Law
    http://www.parlamento.it/parlam/leggi/deleghe/99185dl.htm

  11. The Austrian Telecm Law
    http://www.parlament.gv.at/pd/pm/XX/I/texte/020/I02064_.html
    http://www.bmv.gv.at/tk/3telecom/recht/tkg/inhalt.htm

  12. The Norwegian Marketing Control Act
    http://www.forbrukerombudet.no/html/engelsk/themcact.htm


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