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Did you know that the very first spam email was sent out in 1978?
The very first email was sent over the ARPANET (a precursor to the internet) just a few years beforehand.
Once email was invented, it didn’t take long for con-artists and marketers to realize the potential of the blossoming technology. Today, more than 70% of all emails sent are spam.
Email spam isn’t just an annoyance; it can cause real harm— and worst of all, it’s more effective than you might think.
Spam email can damage your computer with malware contained inside links or attachments. This malware can then harvest sensitive personal information to send to hackers. A study found that 2.3% of all emails contained malicious attachments designed to spread computer viruses when opened by an unsuspecting recipient.
The viruses spread by spam emails include so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ programs like keyloggers, which keep track of everything you type on your keyboard. Spammers use such programs to gather login information and passwords, which they can then sell or use to login to sensitive accounts such as your online banking account, steal your money or identity.
Spam also includes ’phishing’ attempts, where scammers pose as legitimate websites in order to trick the recipient into revealing passwords or other sensitive information. Phishing attempts can be difficult to spot when scammers are experienced in duplicating websites: they sometimes look exactly the same as a legitimate website or financial service. Often, the only way to catch a phishing site is by looking closely at the URL, which will often contain subtle differences compared to the legitimate site. Some scammers are smart about using subdomains to duplicate legitimate URLs closely; eg. www.yourbank.com.scammer.com – the “scammer.com” part is the actual domain name, while everything before it is a subdomain.
There is also the infamous 419 scam, known for convincing sob stories and promises of easy riches. This scam actually dates back hundreds of years, but the advent of email has made it much easier to reach millions of potential targets. These emails often purposely use bad spelling and grammar in order to filter out targets who are too savvy to fall for their schemes.
Who sent that very first email scam? Was it an established 419 con artist who was an early adopter of email, and saw its potential to pull the same trick that had been successful on so many others for hundreds of years?
Actually, the first spam email wasn’t a scam; just questionable marketing.
In the 70s, the ARPANET was used by a few thousand research scientists across the United States.
The first spam message was sent by Gary Thuerk, marketing manager of the now-defunct Digital Equipment Corp., an early computer manufacturer. In May 1978, Thuerk, tasked with promoting the new DECSYSTEM-20 computer mainframes, realized he could easily reach his target audience for free just by sending a message over the ARPANET.
“WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY,” his all-caps email advertised.
Unfortunately, the reaction then was the same as our reaction to spam today: most recipients ignored the message and deleted it. The Defense Communications Agency, which ran the Arpanet, even called Thuerk’s boss to file a complaint.
Today, Thuerk thinks of himself as the father of e-marketing, but others have given him a title that’s not so complimentary: the father of spam.
Though Gary Thuerk’s modern reputation is less than flattering, he did help to usher in a new era of computer technology and popularize the use of email and the ARPANET.
Thuerk wasn’t so lucky in his legacy and many of the tech geniuses below fared much better, though some of their contributions were just as questionable. The good intentions of those who invented the pop-up ad and captchas are a little difficult to believe today, but hindsight’s always 20/20.
Check out these tech geniuses and their unfortunate contributions to today’s World Wide Web below.
Download this infographic.