The Difference Between Spam & Junk Mail

By Aaron Charles

Spammers target people using various devices, including phones.
i Ian Waldie/Getty Images News/Getty Images

While the topic itself might seem a bit trivial, there are actually important differences between spam and junk mail. For one thing, the term "junk mail" has traditionally applied to those unsolicited advertisements you find in your mailbox via snail mail. But as we've begun to rely more heavily on email, "junk mail" now also includes junk email, and has also led to the general practice of using the terms "spam" and "junk mail" interchangeably.


Spam is defined as irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of people. Junk mail has been defined as unsolicited advertising or promotional material received through mail or email. Using these two basic definitions as guide, then, spam is more readily linked with hitting a lot of people with the same unsolicited message -- or "spamming" -- at one time. Junk mail, while also unsolicited and perhaps also sent to many people, more directly emphasizes the trite nature of the mail -- its "junkiness." Either way, the two terms typically are used interchangeably.


One clear difference between spam and junk mail is that junk mail is always in the form of mail, or email, while spam can arrive in forms beyond email, such as text and instant messages, or via social networks. But really, now that smartphones and tablets give people the ability to email, visit social networks and to receive both text and online instant messages on their phones, a person can be spammed or "junk-mailed" virtually all of the time, wherever he goes. However, those who don't use smartphones but prefer cell phones that don't have the capacity to receive email, would technically be unaffected by junk email via their phones. But they could still, probably, be spammed via text messaging.


Both spam and junk mail can contain malware designed to damage your computer or mobile device, or to steal your personal information. They could also both be phishing attempts to steal sensitive info from you. But, in general, it's possible that some might view junk mail as more of an annoyance and less threatening than spam, due to the fact that junk mail has long been associated with harmless advertisements received via snail mail that often go pretty much from the mail box to the trashcan.


Overall, then, the only real clear and major difference between spam and junk mail is that junk mail is limited to a single medium -- mail, whether in "snail" or electronic form. Considering how interchangeably the two words are used, they should both be treated as something that's potentially pernicious. Most email programs offer spam or junk mail filters. The same can't be said, yet, for instant messaging programs or cell phones, although, as of the date of publication, some cell carriers are working on it.