From Mail's help documentation:

Mail keeps a list of the email addresses you send messages to, and uses the list to suggest or complete addresses for you when you send email. You can delete obsolete or incorrect addresses from the list so Mail stops suggesting them, and use the list to quickly see or add people in the Contacts app.

(emphasis added)

Spam addresses are appearing in my previous recipients list. About once a month I go in and find hundreds of new addresses that I have never sent an email to and are clearly spam email addresses.

I know how to delete these addresses by hand in Mail > Window > Previous Recipients, but it is a pretty annoying process. I really want to know why they are appearing and (or) how to keep that from happening.

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    That's a mightily tempting bounty... yet I can't even find a way to make it add to that list from incoming emails. It will only add ones I do reply to. I'd be tempted to say, as it's obviously been happening for quite some time you're unlikely to be mistaken... how about testing on a fresh user account on the Mac, set up mail again & see if it still happens [I know, total pita to do, but might be the first step in elimination] – Tetsujin Mar 11 '16 at 11:37
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    You don't have any kind of "out of office reply" that could be running, do you? Something generating actual replies, rather than finding the ghost in the machine. [Pure guess, worth a shot] – Tetsujin Mar 12 '16 at 17:31
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    Another possibility: Can you have been hacked? Is your mac being used by a spammer to send out messages – Sherwood Botsford Mar 15 '16 at 20:52
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    You've checked the sentmail folder for actual outdoing messages matching the spurious addresses? – Sherwood Botsford Mar 15 '16 at 20:54
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    Last ditch attempt... anything in /var/mail/ ? – Tetsujin Mar 16 '16 at 16:09

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