The simplest method involves spammers purchasing or trading lists of email addresses from other spammers.
Another common method is the use of special software known as "harvesting bots" or "harvesters", which spider Web pages, postings on Usenet, mailing list archives, internet forums and other online sources to obtain email addresses from public data.
Spammers may also use a form of dictionary attack in order to harvest email addresses, known as a directory harvest attack, where valid email addresses at a specific domain are found by guessing email address using common usernames in email addresses at that domain. For example, trying email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, etc. and any that are accepted for delivery by the recipient email server, instead of rejected, are added to the list of theoretically valid email addresses for that domain.
Another method of email address harvesting is to offer a product or service free of charge as long as the user provides a valid email address, and then use the addresses collected from users as spam targets. Common products and services offered are jokes of the day, daily bible quotes, news or stock alerts, free merchandise, or even registered sex offender alerts for one's area. Another technique was used in late 2007 by the company iDate, which used email harvesting directed at subscribers to the Quechup website to spam the victim's friends and contacts.
Spammers may harvest email addresses from a number of sources. A popular method uses email addresses which their owners have published for other purposes. Usenet posts, especially those in archives such as Google Groups, frequently yield addresses. Simply searching the Web for pages with addresses — such as corporate staff directories or membership lists of professional societies — using spambots can yield thousands of addresses, most of them deliverable. Spammers have also subscribed to discussion mailing lists for the purpose of gathering the addresses of posters. The DNS and WHOIS systems require the publication of technical contact information for all Internet domains; spammers have illegally trawled these resources for email addresses. Spammers have also concluded that generally, for the domain names of businesses, all of the email addresses will follow the same basic pattern and thus are able to accurately guess the email addresses of employees whose addresses they have not harvested. Many spammers use programs called web spiders to find email addresses on web pages. Usenet article message-IDs often look enough like email addresses that they are harvested as well. Spammers have also harvested email addresses directly from Google search results, without actually spidering the websites found in the search.