“Ubiquitous, Unavoidable, and Repetitive”—When Was the First Spam Email Sent?

Spam email, or any type of unsolicited commercial email sent in bulk, is a modern-day annoyance familiar to anyone with an active email address. 

Unlike actual spam emails, the history of spam is rather fascinating. Keep on reading to find out how spam emails came about and how we fought them throughout the decades.

Who Sent the First Spam Email?

The first spam email was sent by a Digital Equipment Corp marketing representative to every ARPANET (The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) member on the U.S.’ West Coast on May 3, 1978. 


The email, sent by the marketing manager Gary Thuerk to 393 recipients, promoted a new model of computer. Originally, Thuerk asked his assistant to send the single mass email, but instead of that, a separate message was sent to each person. 

The response was a mixed bag. While this first spam message generated a decent sales outcome, many recipients complained to the U.S. Defence Department which ran ARPANET. 

The Defence Department warned Thuerk not to do it again, and he did not. There were no other recorded instances of unsolicited commercial emails until 1993 when the term “spam” came into existence. 

The Curious History of Spam Email

Although the first spam email took place in 1978, it wasn’t until fifteen years later that the name “spam” was first used to describe an unsolicited, mass-sent message. 

It didn’t refer to an email, but to unwanted postings on the USENET Newsgroup network in 1993. A person named Richard Depew posted 200 messages to the forum by mistake, which immediately compelled other users to start making jokes about it. One user—inspired by the legendary Monty Python sketch—referred to the barrage of messages as spam.

In the skit called “Spam”, first televised in 1970, two customers are trying to order breakfast at a cafe. The only problem is that much to the disgust of the patrons, every dish on the menu contains the canned meat product known as—you guessed it—spam. The ingredient was described as “ubiquitous, unavoidable, and repetitive,” making the association between the food item and the unwanted bulk messages even more obvious!

The Start of the Anti-Spam Push in the 1990s

The first significant effort to curb spam emails happened in 1996 when the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) organization was founded. 

Its founders, software engineers Dave Rand and Paul Vixie, began keeping a list of IP addresses that were used to send out spam. That list eventually became known as the Real-Time Blackhole List

The Spam Problem Through the 2000s

With the rapid advent of the internet and more people around the world opening up email accounts, spam emails were progressively getting worse. In response, the first email spam filters were born. 

On April 20, 2001, SpamAssassin, the first open-source spam-filtering system, was uploaded to the open-source software platform SourceForge.net by software engineer Justin Mason. 

In August 2002, the programmer Paul Graham published an influential paper called “A plan for spam,” describing a spam-filtering technique known as Bayesian filtering. A variant of this was soon used by a number of products, including server-side email filters, such as:

  • DSPAM
  • SpamAssassin
  • SpamBayes

Introduction of Anti-Spam Laws in 2003

A major stride in controlling unsolicited commercial emails in the U.S. took place under George W. Bush’s Administration. The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (the CAN-SPAM Act) of 2003 was signed into law by President Bush on December 16, 2003. This set the first national standard for sending commercial emails that were required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In September 2004, a man called Nicholas Tombros became the first spammer to be convicted under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 for spamming porn ads. He was sentenced to three years of probation, six months of house arrest, and fined $10,000. 

In the United Kingdom back in 2005, British authorities arrested a man named Christopher Pierson and charged him with malicious communication. He pleaded guilty to sending hoax emails to relatives of missing people after the Asian tsunami disaster. 

Anti-Spam Laws In Other Countries

Soon after the United States introduced the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, several other countries followed suit. Here are some of the most significant legal acts that regulate the issue of spam emails:

Country/Union

Act Name
The UK

Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations

The EU

Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications
Australia

Spam Act of 2003

Canada

Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act

How To Get Rid of Email Spam Once and for All With DoNotPay

Getting rid of unwanted messages and reporting spam emails will free up not just your mailbox, but also your headspace.

The most straightforward way to get rid of spam is to team up with DoNotPay.

Follow this simple process:

  1. Log in to DoNotPay in your web browser
  2. Tap or click on the Spam Collector option
  3. Enter your email address and connect it to DoNotPay
  4. Forward the spam email to spam@donotpay.com the next time you get it

After you’ve taken these four steps, two things will happen. 

For one, you will automatically be unsubscribed from the sender.

If the email was sent illegally—that is, if there was no unsubscribe option or you did not agree to receive the email—you might also be entitled to damages or settlement cash. If there’s a class action lawsuit or settlement involving the sender, you will get a notification, and you can join the lawsuit if you so choose. 

Don’t forget to also report email abuse if you’ve been subjected to it! 

Declutter Your Mailbox, Too

Even though spammers mostly rely on the internet as their primary spamming platform, physical mailboxes cluttered with junk mail are still a thing. 

If you want to only get the mail you need or are interested in, DoNotPay can help you out. 

Here is how it works:

  1. Select the DoNotMail option in your DoNotPay web browser
  2. Hit the Enroll Now button
  3. Upload the photos of the junk mail you received

Once we receive your photos, we’ll get in touch with the mail senders in your stead and make sure they don’t contact you again. If there’s a current class-action lawsuit against the sender, we’ll let you know (simply look for a flag icon in the Spam Collector tab on your DoNotPay dashboard).

If you choose to join the list of class members, you might get up to $500 in compensation!

DoNotPay Is The App You Didn’t Know You Needed

If spam is the bane of your online life, we can teach you how to block spam emails on Android or stop receiving emails you don’t want. It’s not just your emails that we can help you manage—our services can tackle a wide range of everyday problems on your behalf, both online and offline. 

Our AI-powered app has been dubbed as the world’s first robot lawyer and is the proud receiver of the 2020 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access by the American Bar Association

Log in to your DoNotPay account in your web browser and get assistance with: