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Spam emails are ‘unsolicited commercial email sent without consent’. It is email that you don't want and didn't ask for, and its content can cause embarrassment and distress. However, it's worth remembering that the sender generally doesn't target spam emails personally. The same spam email can be sent to as many as 50 million people at a time and the addresses are often guessed. Some spammers buy lists, some search websites and harvest email addresses or abuse facilities in your web browser. Others simply use specific software to generate or guess email addresses based on dictionaries of common words and terms.


The ICO is responsible for enforcing the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations which prohibit the sending of spam emails (although there are some exemptions). Unfortunately, the problem of spam emails can't be solved by regulation alone. Given the amount of spam emails in circulation, and the fact that most of this is sent from outside the UK meaning that the spammers are not subject to UK law,  it's impossible for the ICO to investigate every case.


Under UK legislation, senders are sometimes allowed to send marketing emails until the recipient chooses to opt out. These regulations only apply to spam emails sent within the UK. National initiatives are unlikely to solve the problem in isolation, so the Information Commissioner has signed an understanding with a number of overseas bodies. This sets out an agreement between the parties to cooperate and exchange information to try and stop spam emails originating in their jurisdiction.


You can take the following steps to help prevent spam emails and reduce the amount you receive:


How to prevent spam emails

Be careful who you give your email address to

  • Consider having separate personal and business email addresses
  • Choose an email address which is difficult to guess
  • Don’t advertise your email address
  • Check privacy policies and marketing opt-outs carefully


Reduce your spam emails


  • I already get spam emails. What can I do about it? 
    It’s almost impossible to avoid spam emails other than by changing your email address. Websites such as junkbusters and getnetwise also offer practical advice, although some of the advice is specific to US-based users.


  • Avoid responding to spam emails.
    Replying can indicate that your email address is live, which can encourage the more unscrupulous senders to send you even more spam emails. You should not reply to emails unless you are familiar with and trust the sender. Delivery and read receipts can identify your email address as active and will result in even more spam emails. Many complaints received by the ICO are about well known, legitimate companies who offer opt-outs. In most cases responding to the opt-outs in these emails should stop the problem.


  • Don’t click on the adverts in spam emails.
    By clicking on spammers’ web pages, you identify your email address as being live and may make yourself a target for more emails. Clicking on graphics and images in spam emails can tell the spammer that you have received the email and also other private information such as your Internet Provider address.


  • Use a spam email filter on your computer
    These are programs which work with your email package to sift through new emails, separating spam emails from wanted emails and blocking them. Most packages are successful although sometimes block good email too, and the spam emails still have to be downloaded before it is blocked. New spam email filters are being developed all the time, you can search the Internet for one that is suitable for you. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also offer filters which work by examining content and using blacklists to restrict spam emails. Again, these sometimes block good emails as well as spam emails and there can also be a cost involved.  For further information on the services that are available to you, please check with your ISP.


  • Keep your systems well maintained.
    Hackers and spammers can exploit software problems, so most software companies issue product updates and patches that fix known problems. Updates are generally available through manufacturers’ websites and are usually free to download and install. You should also consider using anti-virus software to protect against rogue virus programs that can destroy computer files and are increasingly being exploited by spammers


  • Check privacy policies and marketing opt-outs carefully
    If you buy something online or subscribe to a service, check the company’s privacy policy before giving your email address or any other private information. Consider carefully how the company uses private information and the restriction they have regarding its use and distribution within both internally and externally.


You can report spam emails


Reporting and investigating spam incidents is complicated as some spammers employ hackers to hide their true identity. ISPs are generally diligent in withdrawing service from spammers when they receive reports of spam originating on their networks. Unfortunately, by this time the spammer has often moved on to another account. Various bodies including the ICO in the UK also have powers to investigate some spam incidents. Before you report spam emails, please check that it is appropriate to our remit, if the ICO cannot identify a spammer then we cannot pursue a complaint. Please do not forward your unwanted spam emails to us. Instead, please read the how and when to complain leaflet and then complete the complaint form if it’s a matter we can look into.


Reporting Spam from French Companies:

Reporting Spam from UK Companies