Your Name Could Determine Your Spam Load

Those of us with unusual names tend to draw more chuckles and raised eyebrows than our more commonly named counterparts.

But it turns out that there is at least one thing that the Johns and Janes of the world seem to attract more of than we do.

Spam.

A recent study shows that the amount of spam you receive could depend not only how common your first name is but how common the first letter of your e-mail address is.

Interested in discovering why some people receive more spam than others, Richard Clayton, a computer security researcher at the University of Cambridge, analyzed more than 550 million e-mails sent to a large U.K. Internet service provider.

He found that for e-mail addresses starting with heavily used letters like J, M, R and P, 40 percent of the e-mail received was spam, while addresses beginning with less frequently used letters, such as Q, X and Z, attracted about 20 percent -- or less -- spam.

The discrepancies have to do with the way that spammers compile their lists of e-mail addresses, Clayton said. One common method is called the dictionary attack. Spammers go through the alphabet and if, for example, they know that a john@example.com exists, they'll try sending an e-mail to john@another.com.

Initially, Clayton said he thought he would find that e-mail addresses closer to the beginning of the alphabet would get spammed more than e-mail addresses closer to the end of the alphabet. (Often, computer systems will detect an attack and shut down before a spammer reaches the end of the alphabet, he said.)

Although he did find that, on average, addresses starting with the letter A got more spam than addresses starting with Z, he said that wasn't the primary pattern he observed.

"What seems to be important is whether or not others share the same e-mail address as yours," Clayton told ABCNews.com. "If you're John and lots of people have that in their e-mail address, [spammers] will try that at all other domains."

It means that if you have an unusual name, your name is much less likely to be guessed," he said.

However, Clayton emphasized, several other factors can also determine the amount of spam someone receives. If your name is on several Web sites, or if you've used it for a long time, it wouldn't matter how unusual your name, he said.

The longer the e-mail address has been around and the more visible it is on the Internet, the easier it is for a spammer to find and use it.

He also noted that his findings included some anomalies. For example, few names start with the letter U, but he found that e-mail addresses beginning with that letter attracted 50 percent junk mail. Although he said the matter needs more inquiry, his suggested explanation is that many e-mail addresses start with user1 or user 2@example.com.

Doug Bowers, an anti-spam expert for security software firm Symantec, told ABCNews.com that Clayton's findings are consistent with his own research.

When spammers build e-mail lists, they usually take one of two tacks, he said. They'll either buy a list of actual e-mail addresses on the black market or they'll guess.

When they guess, Bowers said, they'll start at the beginning of the alphabet and keep on going until they find addresses that work.

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