Is it any wonder that the criminal underground is embracing the Internet? The fortunes to be made through spam and search-engine poisoning are enormous.

Graham Cluley, Contributor

November 16, 2009

3 Min Read

Is it any wonder that the criminal underground is embracing the Internet? The fortunes to be made through spam and search-engine poisoning are enormous.Research published by Sophos today reveals the workings of secretive Russian crime networks who have created complex Webs of affiliates promoting Websites selling fake pharmaceuticals.

Naughty nurse Viagra spam

Naughty nurse Viagra spam

We're all familiar with spam email like the one shown above -- a sexily dressed nurse (somehow I doubt she's medically qualified) is encouraging you to buy Viagra and Cialis from her online store.

What is less well-known is that many of these email messages are not sent by the store itself, but by a network of commission-earning affiliates (known as the "Partnerka"), who use compromised botnet PCs, search engine optimization, and social networks to advertise their links.

And every time you buy goods via a site like this, they earn 40% of the proceeds.

In the past, some of the Partnerka affiliates have even held parties -- posting pictures and videos on the Web as they party the night away with fast cars and strippers.

I'll spare you those pictures, but here's a snapshot of a familiar young lady on a banner at just one such event:

Naughty nurse party banner

Naughty nurse party banner

Affiliates to the Partnerka pharmaceutical Websites earn on average $16,000 per day -- that's almost $16 million a year. And if that figure is making your eyes pop out, then realize this: Some of the bad guys boast they are making a breathtaking $100,000 a day.

What's been interesting this year is that we've seen many of the spammers switch from focusing their main attention on folks seeking Cialis and Viagra to promote Tamiflu instead.

As fears rise about a Swine Flu outbreak, many people have turned to the Net hoping to find medications. As you can see in the following graph, panic can cause "Tamiflu" to rise in popularity on search engines:

Tamiflu global search volume

Tamiflu global search volume

Searching on the Internet for drugs like this is, of course, plays straight into the hands of the cybercriminals. They are creating Websites that claim they will sell you the medication you are after -- but what guarantee do you have that the drugs will be safe? And given these guys have already proved themselves capable of criminal acts, such as spam and malware infection, do you really want to trust them with your credit card details?

If you're worried about Swine Flu, don't seek medication on the Internet. You'll only be encouraging spammers and criminal gangs to spread their misery even further.

Find out more about how the Partnerka works on the Sophos Website.

Graham Cluley is senior technology consultant at Sophos, and has been working in the computer security field since the early 1990s. When he's not updating his other blog on the Sophos website, you can find him on Twitter at @gcluley. Special to Dark Reading.

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