Financial spam scams tripled so far this year over last, spammers to target 'tiny URLs'

It didn't take long for spammers to jump on the financial crisis bus: A little more than one week into the New Year, financial spam has tripled over the same time last year, according to new spam data released today.

And in the wake of the recent Twitter phishing hack, look for the bad guys this year to start exploiting those convenient and cute "tiny URLs" (

These are among the big trends in spamming highlighted by Symantec, MXLogic, and MessageLabs (now part of Symantec) in their latest spam trend reports and forecasts. McAfee, which will release its spam report next week, also points to financially related spam, such as do-it-yourself home businesses aimed at the unemployed, and expects targeted phishing and corporate blackmail to jump this year as well.

MessageLabs says financial scam spams so far have tripled this month over the same period last January. This type of spam -- such as "Congratulations New Year winner! You have won the UK National Lottery" -- currently makes up around 10 percent of all email, according to MessageLabs, versus 3.1 percent during the same period in 2008, and 4.2 percent in December 2008.

"The new year means new opportunities for spammers," says Paul Wood, senior analyst with MessageLabs. "As the economic climate continues to be frosty and the inability to secure credit through official channels remains, spammers are tempted by the possibility that consumers facing uncertain futures may be more tempted by some of these hard-to-resist offers."

The overall percentage of spam was down slightly in December '08, according to MXLogic -- to 85.1 percent of all global email in December versus 86.3 percent in November.

Symantec reports that aside from financial spam, the other major types were spam relating to the Internet (24 percent), leisure-related spam (18 percent), product spam (18 percent), and health-related spam (11 percent).

And according to Symantec, the U.S. is the No. 1 region sending spam, with 27 percent, followed by China and Brazil, each with 7 percent, and South Korea and Russia, each with 4 percent. MXLogic also found the U.S. as the No. 1 spammer, followed by Brazil, the Russian Federation, Poland, and Ukraine.

According to MessageLabs, the takedown of rogue hosting provider McColo in November resulted in a 65 percent decrease in global spam, and spam volume has yet to fully recover to its previous levels. Its parent company, Symantec, meanwhile, says spam is at about 80 percent of its volume prior to McColo's shutdown, while McAfee says spam levels are 40 percent less than they were prior to McColo's demise.

MXLogic speculates that botnet herders trying to boost their bot populations in the wake of the McColo takedown were behind the worms seen last month in spammed fake e-cards and promotional messages using brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

Another big trend is spammers trying to piggyback on legitimate email newsletters, according to Symantec. This is where spammers insert spam images into templates of legit newsletters and ads. That ensures the spam gets past filters, for instance.

"Just like news on the economy, the new year brings little good news when referring to the spam landscape. In addition to spam levels creeping back up, spammers continue to hide behind the reputation of legitimate senders and social networking sites," says Dermot Harnett, principal analyst for antispam engineering at Symantec.

Says Jeff Green, senior vice president, McAfee Avert Labs: "With more people out of work or self-employed going into 2009, beware of communication offering low-cost degrees and do-it-yourself kits, as well as any requests for financial information from what looks like your bank, school, or investment firm."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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