Recognizing and reporting spam

Learn how to distinguish spam from legitimate emails, texts and social media messages, and what to do about spam if you receive it.

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What is spam?

The simplest definition of spam is unsolicited email, though spam can also include unsolicited text messages and software.

The legal definition of spam also encompasses:

  • unauthorized alteration of transmission data
  • the installation of computer programs without consent
  • false or misleading electronic representations (including websites)
  • the harvesting of addresses (collecting and/or using email or other electronic addresses without permission)
  • the collection of personal information by accessing a computer system or electronic device illegally

Spam includes malware, spyware and false or misleading representations involving the use of any means of telecommunications, short message services (SMS), social networking, websites, URLs and other locators, applications, blogs, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and any other current or future Internet and wireless telecommunication threats prohibited by Canada's anti-spam legislation.

A lot of spam is sent by botnets, which makes it hard to track down the source. Botnets are collections of internet-connected devices that are infected and controlled by malware. They can be PCs, servers, mobile devices and Internet-of-things devices.

Spam: Nuisance or threat?

Spam can range from being a nuisance to a significant threat.

If you voluntarily give a retailer your email address (such as by placing an online order), they may have permission to send you email. However, commercial electronic messages from legitimate businesses may still contravene Canada's anti-spam legislation (CASL) if they are sent without your express or implied consent, if the sender has not properly identified themselves and included contact information, or if there is no unsubscribe mechanism. Even though unsolicited texts, emails or other forms of commercial electronic messages sent by legitimate companies are more of a nuisance than a threat, they're still spam if they contravene CASL.

Some spam may be connected to scams and other devious activities by illegitimate businesses or individuals. For example, spammers may find your email address through social networking sites, company websites or personal blogs. They can "phish" for your information by tricking you into following links or tempting you with offers and promotions that seem too good to be true. Spam can also contain malware, scams, fraud and privacy threats. This type of spam presents a more direct threat to your privacy and the security of your information.

Worried it's spam? 8 things to look for

Spam has a number of typical hallmarks. It's probably spam if:

  • You've never done business with the organization that sent the email, and you didn't provide them with your email address
  • There is no unsubscribe option
    • This is a violation of CASL even if sent by a legitimate company
  • The sender doesn't properly identify themselves or provide current contact information
  • The message asks for sensitive information
    • Banks and other legitimate companies will never email you to ask for personal or financial information
  • It impersonates people or companies you know
    • Spam can appear to be from someone familiar. If the message contains some of the other warning signs on this list, be cautious
  • It contains spelling and grammar mistakes
    • Legitimate businesses usually take the time to get it right
  • It uses scare tactics
    • Spam often uses language designed to spark fear. For example, if a message says your account will be deleted if you don't respond, it's probably spam
  • It asks for money in advance
    • Such a request could seem to be coming from a friend in an emergency. Don't respond to requests for money until you've checked with the sender personally
  • It seems too good to be true
    • If the email offers prizes or money, or says you won a trip, beware. Don't supply personal information or click buttons within the email to claim a prize

For more tips about how to recognize different types of spam, see Be diligent when dealing with spam.

Got spam…. Now what?

If you think you've received spam:

  • Don't respond to it
  • Don't open any attached files
  • Don't click any buttons to open web pages
  • Do report it to help the Government of Canada hold spammers accountable