Long life spam – The changing landscape of online fraud

As spammers find their e-mails blocked, they are trying other tactics. Expect no respite

Published on The Economist, Nov. 18, 2010.

WHEN Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, presented its new messaging service on November 15th, he praised one feature in particular: the “social inbox”, which would catch spam or other unwanted messages. “Because we know who your friends are, we can put in really good filters to make sure you only see things you care about,” he said, with unwarranted confidence. 

Spammers are moving onto social-networking sites such as Facebook because they find e-mail increasingly unrewarding. Data from Cisco, which makes networking gear, show the volume of e-mail spam began declining slowly in late 2009 (see chart) and by almost half in the past three months, after the authorities disabled spam networks in Russia and the Netherlands.

One reason is that online-security firms have worked on every bit of the chain, from the content of junk e-mails to their sender, with the result that they stop more than 98% from reaching its target. First they blocked e-mails containing suspect words or links. Then they blacklisted addresses used by spammers. In response, senders started using botnets (networks of otherwise innocent computers). But security firms have now got better at spotting patterns in the spammers’ output … //

… Spammers’ resilience is best demonstrated by Koobface, a Trojan that spreads on social networks and appeared on Facebook in May 2008. Its criminal creators have so far adapted it to surmount all the obstacles put up by the firm’s security geeks. Experts estimate its profits at $2m so far. Spam is out of the can for good. (full text).

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