Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Endpoint

Booming Underground Economy Makes Spam A Hot Commodity, Expert Says

$10 might be enough to reach 1 million users, MessageLabs researcher warns

The rapid growth of cybercrime markets is making spam an even more attractive proposition than it has been in the past, according to a well-known researcher.

Matt Sergeant, chief anti-spam technologist for Symantec's MessageLabs unit, will offer a look at spam and the cybercrime economy in a presentation at next week's Gartner Security Summit in Washington, D.C. And the news isn't particularly good, he says.

"With the wide availability of email mailing lists, and with so many botnets for rent to carry them, spam campaigns have become appallingly cheap to launch," Sergeant says. "For about $10, you can send a million emails.

"The continued growth of spam traffic is entirely attributable to the rapid growth of the underground economy," he continues. "At these prices, you can launch a massive campaign that gets the smallest response, and yet still makes a profit. Why does spam continue to grow? Because there's still a lot of money in it."

In its May 2009 Intelligence Report, MessageLabs reported that spam levels had increased 5.1 percent over the previous month, accounting for more than 90 percent of all email traffic. More than half (57.6 percent) of spam traffic comes from known botnets; an emerging botnet called Donbot was responsible for 18.2 percent of all spam, the report says. And although much attention has been paid to large botnets, such as Conficker or Storm, more than 42 percent of spam originates from smaller or unclassified botnets, the researchers say.

Recently, MessageLabs has begun to track a single spam campaigns across multiple botnets, and the results are revealing, Sergeant says. "We can see that spammers will send out a short campaign on a botnet to evaluate it," he says. "We suspect that the spammer will choose the lowest-priced botnet for rent, and then test it to see the results. If they don't like what they find, it's fairly cheap and easy to find another botnet to try."

This ease of choice -- and greater price competition among botnets -- is largely the result of underground markets that allow spammers to window-shop and find the best deals, Sergeant says. Some spammers are beginning to specialize in reaching specific audiences, such as users of Gmail or AOL, and they choose botnets that help them reach those audiences, he observes.

But while spam is hotter than ever as a means of mass marketing, it is falling out of favor as a means of delivering malware, Sergeant notes. "The volume of malware sent directly to the user via email has dropped significantly," he says. "The most popular way of distributing malware today is through browser vulnerabilities that allow you to push malware out through Websites. You might put links to those Websites in a spam message, but the approach of sending malware as an attachment in an email is no longer considered to be very effective."

Aside from injection attacks and other Web exploits, malware distributors also are moving from email to next-generation media, Sergeant observes. "We're seeing a lot of spam and email going out via Twitter," he says. "Twitter breaks the trust model for Web links because it relies so heavily on URL-shortening systems. A lot of those systems are not trustworthy -- they can route you almost anywhere."

And despite numerous reports of bugs and attacks on social networking sites, such as Facebook, Sergeant believes the industry has only just begun to see "the thin end" of the social networking spam and malware spike. "There will be more -- we particularly expect to see blended threats that take advantage of social networks and the Web at the same time," he says.

With so many spam vehicles -- and so many spam messages being sent out each day -- you'd think end users would eventually get wise. "Sadly, that hasn't happened -- from what we know, the percentage of users that fall for spam messages hasn't dropped very much," Sergeant says. "It almost makes you lose faith in humanity. But a lot of spam is used to promote weight loss solutions, medicine without prescriptions, and that sort of thing, where you're looking for a gullible user anyway. For a lot of spammers, it's still working."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Commentary
Ransomware Is Not the Problem
Adam Shostack, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Technologist, Game Designer,  6/9/2021
Edge-DRsplash-11-edge-ask-the-experts
How Can I Test the Security of My Home-Office Employees' Routers?
John Bock, Senior Research Scientist,  6/7/2021
News
New Ransomware Group Claiming Connection to REvil Gang Surfaces
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  6/10/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: Google's new See No Evil policy......
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-31664
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
RIOT-OS 2021.01 before commit 44741ff99f7a71df45420635b238b9c22093647a contains a buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-33185
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS contains a buffer overflow in the set_range test in TestBitmap which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-33186
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS in test-crypto.cpp contains a stack buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.
CVE-2021-31272
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
SerenityOS before commit 3844e8569689dd476064a0759d704bc64fb3ca2c contains a directory traversal vulnerability in tar/unzip that may lead to command execution or privilege escalation.
CVE-2021-31660
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-18
RIOT-OS 2021.01 before commit 85da504d2dc30188b89f44c3276fc5a25b31251f contains a buffer overflow which could allow attackers to obtain sensitive information.