Does my name affect how much spam I get?

Apparently it could - at least according to research by Richard Clayton, a security expert from Cambridge University's computer lab.

Most of us tend to assume that spammers focus on the right-hand side of our email addresses - the part after the @. That's why big companies and webmail services have to filter out so much junk email: a spammer can try it on with zillions of potential victims in one swoop, simply by throwing everything they've got at any address.

However, it turns out that spammers could be more subtle creatures than we give them credit for. A paper presented by Clayton at CEAS 2008, the Conference on Email and Anti-Spam held last week at a Microsoft research facility in California, suggests that the text to the left of the @ also makes a serious difference to how much spam you're likely to receive. Analysing email traffic logs from Demon Internet, one of Britain's biggest ISPs, Clayton saw a marked difference between people's spam load depending on their names: specifically, those with names higher up the alphabet were more likely to get spammed than those closer to the bottom.

According to his statistics, someone called Alison may expect around 35% of the email she receives to be spam, while Zadie may only get around 20% - even if both use the same email provider.

The reason? As Clayton explains on his team's blog, he believes it is the result of so-called "Rumplestiltskin" attacks, where spammers run through entire dictionaries, guessing at names and sending millions of emails to try and find accounts belonging to real people. It seems that most spammers start their journeys at the beginning of the alphabet but peter out before they reach the end.

There is, he says, a genuine statistical divide between what he calls "aardvarks" - those high up the alphabetical food chain - and "zebras" - who graze at the bottom of the dictionary. For those weary of it, he even suggests changing species - or at least picking your username more carefully.

So are Anna and Andrew doomed to a life of spam-filled inboxes and email bankruptcy, while their friends Zach and Zoe live it up free of spam?

Not quite. The internet's scammers, phishers and other guttersnipes are still more likely to hit people who broadcast their email address on the web; and, of course, there are still a few special cases.

After all, Bill Gates - who famously revealed a few years ago that he received up to 4m junk emails every single day - may have a name that comes near the top of the Aardvark ratings - but given his prominence, it's unlikely that the Microsoft mogul could empty his spam folder simply by switching from Bill to William.

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