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Scam vs Spam: What’s the Difference?

Sep 29, 2023

If you’ve ever entered your contact information into an online form, subscribed to a newsletter or simply spent time online, your email and phone inbox likely has messages from spammers and scammers. And in today's digital-first landscape, knowing who to trust—and what to open—helps protect you and your business from both.

Between scam vs spam—what’s the difference? 

Generally speaking, spammers are harmless marketers who inundate your inbox with unsolicited messages. Scammers, however, are malicious actors seeking to deceive under a false pretense. 

Knowing the key differences and red flags is your first line of defense in navigating this maze of digital deceit. And for businesses leveraging email or SMS as their marketing tools or automated reminders, it’s essential to know these two terms intimately, so you can keep your business out of legal compliance trouble. 

The Distinguishing Characteristics of Spammers vs Scammers 

Although, on the receiving end, they can sometimes feel similar, spam and scam are not interchangeable terms. 

Spammers' primary intention is promotional or marketing-focused. They’re the people who hop into your email inbox with unsolicited messages that aim to drive clicks and engagement toward a product, service or website. On the legal spectrum, spam is considered legal if it follows the guidelines in the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (see below for more details).

Scammers are malicious actors who use sophisticated tactics to extract money or sensitive information from unsuspecting victims. For example, phishing is a social engineering tactic that lulls recipients into a false sense of security. The scammer might illegally pose as your bank, a government agency or even a family member in distress. These types of emails, messages and calls can appear legitimate, but their ultimate goal is to steal money or data. Or, in some instances, they might attempt to plant malware or ransomware onto your system. 

For enterprises, especially, phishing scams aren’t just a nuisance—they’re one of the most significant financial and security risks a company will likely face. According to IBM's 2022 Cost of Data Breach Report, stolen or compromised credentials resulting from phishing scams were the leading cause of data breaches, accounting for 19% of all incidents this year. All totaled, these breaches had an average cost of $4.5 million. And that doesn’t account for indirect costs, such as reputational harm or erosion of consumer trust. 

Spammers vs Scammers 

As a comprehensive breakdown, let’s review spam vs scam as it pertains to intent, content type, goal, legality and potential harm to the recipient:





Generally promotional; marketing-focused

Malicious; aims to deceive


Unsolicited emails, messages or pop-ups

Emails, messages, calls or websites that appear legitimate but aren’t


Drive clicks and views to a product, service or website

Extract money or sensitive information, access the system, load malware or ransomware 

Legal Status

Often legal, though regulated by the CAN-SPAM Act


Harm Factor

Low; generally considered a nuisance 

High; can lead to financial loss or identity theft

Identifying Characteristics of Scam and Spam 

To protect yourself and your company, knowing the key characteristics of each message type is half the battle. Scammers' and spammers’ tactics may differ, but their underlying goal is the same: to convince you to click, respond or reveal something. 

For scammers, deception is the central theme in their toolkit. Scammers tend to deploy more complex schemes and methods meant to prey upon human psychology and emotions. In most cases, their goal is to appear as genuine and legitimate as possible. Sophisticated scammers will work meticulously to mimic the look and tone of legitimate communications to convince the recipient that the message comes from a trusted source. 

Spam messages, on the other hand, are often lower-effort. Rather than focusing on a single target, spammers play a numbers game by sending out a barrage of generic messages, hoping that a percentage of recipients might click on one. That said, some scammers can use spam messages as the first step in a more elaborate scheme. 

What are the common red flags or distinguishing factors? 

  • For scammers 
    • Threatening language 
    • Look-alike websites 
    • Unsolicited offers 
    • Offers that are too good to be true 
    • Demand for urgent action
    • Generic greetings or salutations
    • Spelling and grammar mistakes
    • Inconsistent URLs or email addresses 
    • Suspicious attachments 
    • Requests for personal information 
  • For spammers 
    • Generic subject lines
    • No subject line  
    • Messages from unknown senders
    • Clickbait titles 
    • Too many recipients
    • Call-to-action 
    • Poor grammar and spelling 
    • Miraculous products and promises  

Ensuring Your Business Messages Aren’t Perceived as Spam

Naturally, for businesses attempting to reach customers or send out well-intentioned unsolicited messages, the question becomes how to ensure communications aren't mistaken for spam—or worse, scams.

The goal here is to maintain authenticity, relevance and, most importantly, trust. To accomplish that, keep the following best practices and CAN-SPAM Act legal requirements in mind: 

  • Include clear sender information – First impressions matter. Ensure that your business texts and emails clearly display your business name and the purpose of the message. 
  • Craft tailor-made messages – One size doesn’t fit all in the digital marketing world. Personalize and segment your messages for greater relevance and improved open rates. This could be as simple as including the recipient’s first name or as complex as recommending products based on past purchase behavior.
  • Grab attention but tread carefully – Craft compelling subject lines to grab attention, but steer clear of clickbait tactics that could mislead your audience or raise suspicions. Subject lines are legally required to reflect the content of the message, at least tangentially. 
  • Provide explicit opt-ins and opt-outs – Make sure to obtain explicit opt-ins from individuals before sending them messages, and provide an easily accessible opt-out or unsubscribe option in every communication. If a user opts out, respect their wishes and remove them from your contact immediately.
  • Identify the message as an ad – If you’re sending an ad, you must disclose “clearly and conspicuously” that the message is an advertisement. 
  • Never ask for payment information in unsolicited messages – Even if you have a legitimate business reason, requesting payment details is a major red flag for recipients that erodes trust and puts your business at legal risk.

Compliant Messaging with Textedly 

While spam is generally non-malicious and marketing-focused, it can sometimes be a backdoor for more harmful scams. Businesses need to be cautious of opening such messages and sending out communications that could be mistaken for spam or scams. They must also abide by advertisement laws for text messaging and email. 

Utilizing a compliant text messaging platform like Textedly can help ensure that you don’t appear as spam or a scam. As the #1 rated texting platform, we specialize in delivering your messages the right way, offering the secure and effective solutions you need in this complex digital landscape.

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