Tag Archives: webspam

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Getting the word out about spam profiles and other social network abuse

Just a quick post to point out an article I wrote on the Google Webmaster Central Blog, Spam2.0: Fake user accounts and spam profiles. This is a large and growing problem but a lot of folks I’ve talked to didn’t realize they had fake user accounts on their own sites. Excerpt:

Spammers create fake profiles for a number of nefarious purposes. Sometimes they’re just a way to reach users internally on a social networking site. This is somewhat similar to the way email spam works – the point is to send your users messages or friend invites and trick them into following a link, making a purchase, or downloading malware by sending a fake or low-quality proposition.

Spammers are also using spam profiles as yet another avenue to generate webspam on otherwise good domains. They scour the web for opportunities to get their links, redirects, and malware to users. They use your site because it’s no cost to them and they hope to piggyback off your good reputation.

The article got a write up in Information Week, which is pretty cool. Any way to let more people know about the issue.

Seeing more spammers on Twitter lately?

It was inevitable. As Twitter has grown and started pushing into the mainstream, spammers have started ramping up abuse. At first glance, Twitter isn’t the most obvious target – you actually have to follow someone to get content from them, users don’t generally search it for high-cpc stuff like meds and lawyers, and how much spam can you really get into 140 character messages?

But I’m seeing more invites from users like the one below:

Seeing a lot more spammers on Twitter lately...

First: What is Twitterspam? How do I know this is a spammer?

When it comes to spam, most people “know it when they see it,” but it’s helpful to look at the specific signals that this user might not be worth talking to. First off, they have 180 followers and yet haven’t posted a single update. The photo is a dead giveaway. The bio is actually pretty well-done, it’s in English and it’s not outlandish, but the homepage link (http://my-pictures.no.tp/tlow/) – she’s in Portuguese Timor?

Second: Why spam Twitter?

Spammers have two reasons to abuse Twitter: monetary payoff, and because it works.

How can they make money by tweeting a bunch of random people? Well in this case they aren’t, at least not yet. The payoff has to be through the homepage link, which I’m not following and you shouldn’t either. You get a friend invite on a system that, so far, has been a medium of immediate, short, personal communication. Your trust barriers thus weakened, you at least want to see who it is. They don’t have any updates yet, so you click the homepage link and… Virus. Or a maze of PPC affiliate pages and redirections.

Above I said spammers are hitting Twitter because it’s working. How do I know? Look at the number of followers, and the ratio of people followed to followers. About 22 percent of the people spammed so far have responded. I don’t know how many click through to the home page link, but if half the people bother to go that far they’ve got an amazing success rate for spam.

I wish Twitter luck. I know a few people over there, they’ve got their work cut out for them. This sort of thing isn’t easy to fight, it’s an ongoing process. They’ve already taken some visible steps, like using rel=”nofollow” on the Bio link, which at least keeps away blackhat SEOs looking for sources of pagerank. They’ll probably have to do more, most of it on the backend where you and I will never be the wiser. Happy spamfighting!

How spam and malware botnets work – two papers

I read two reports today about large-scale botnets that really pointed out that security is still an open problem on the web. Recently, researchers got access to a nasty botnet, Torpig (original paper: Your Botnet is My Botnet: Analysis of a Botnet Takeover). A few months earlier researchers hijacked the Storm Worm and looked at its profitability (original paper: Spamalytics: An Empirical Analysis of Spam Marketing Conversion). Both papers are fascinating, but terrifying reads.

Some findings:

  • In 10 days, a botnet running on 160,000 machines stole credentials for over 8,000 bank accounts.
  • About 1 in 10 people who open a spam email click through to get infected by the malware.
  • 350 million spam emails resulted in only 28 sales, but the average purchase was $100.

How do these botnets get control of machines? How do they make money? Whether it’s a spammer who needs to get someone to make a purchase on a website or a scammer stealing credit card numbers, passwords, and other information, ultimately you need to get someone to a bad website. Think about all the paths you might take to different sites during the day:

  • Via a web search
  • Clicking on a link in an email
  • Going directly to a favorite site
  • Clicking through an ad

Spammers and scammers try to take advantage of all of those methods, and given the huge volumes of machines at their disposal, it’s a wonder search engines, spam filters, and advertising systems protect users as well as they do now. Between the first and third bullet point above, there’s a huge motivation to hack otherwise good sites to inject drive-by download malware – it can happen to anyone.

So what can we do about it? I think it ultimately comes down to a combination of smarter automated methods, better ways to establish trustworthiness, and removing the economic incentives for spamming, identity theft, and hacking. I have a few posts in mind about some current tools that help with the trust issue and how we might be able to build a social web of trust.

This isn’t a new discussion, Tim Berners-Lee has been writing about the web of trust since the 1990s. But all the work done since then has yet to really solve these problems. And really, so long as a few people are willing to click on a malware link or buy drugs via a spam email, it will never stop.