TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Email Gangs Bombard us in 'Spam Wars'

Email Gangs Bombard us in 'Spam Wars'

Peter Griffiths (
Mon, 27 Nov 2006 13:20:03 -0600

By Peter Griffiths

Criminal gangs using hijacked computers are behind a surge in unwanted
emails peddling sex, drugs and stock tips in Britain.

The number of "spam" messages has tripled since June and now accounts
for as many as nine out of 10 emails sent worldwide, according to U.S.
email security company Postini.

As Christmas approaches, the daily trawl through in-boxes clogged with
offers of fake Viagra, loans and sex aids is tipped to take even

"Email systems are overloaded or melting down trying to keep up with
all the spam," said Dan Druker, a vice president at Postini.

His company has detected 7 billion spam e-mails worldwide in November
compared to 2.5 billion in June. Spam in Britain has risen by 50
percent in the last two months alone, according to Internet security
company SurfControl, and in the United States about the same amount.

The United States, China and Poland are the top sources of spam, data
from security firm Marshal suggests.

About 200 illegal gangs are behind 80 percent of unwanted emails,
according to Spamhaus, a body that tracks the problem.

Experts blame the rise in spam on computer programs that hijack millions
of home computers to send emails.

These "zombie networks," also called "botnets," can link 100,000 home
computers without their owners' knowledge.

They are leased to gangs who use their huge "free" computing power to
send millions of emails with relative anonymity.

While "Trojan horse" programs that invade computers have been around
for years, they are now more sophisticated, written by professionals
rather than bored teenagers.

"Before it was about showing off, now it's about ripping people off,"
said SurfControl's Harnish Patel.

Spam costs firms up to $1,000 a year per employee in lost productivity
and higher computing bills, according to research published last year.

Home computer users are at risk from emails that ask them to reveal
their bank details, a practice known as "phishing."

The latest programs mutate to avoid detection and send fewer emails
from each machine. Fast broadband Internet connections, which are
always connected, help the spammers.

The gangs send millions of emails, so they only need a fraction of
people to reply to make a profit.

"This is a constant game of cat and mouse," said Mark Sunner, Chief
Technology Officer at MessageLabs, an email security company. "The bad
guys will not stand still."

They disguise words to try to outfox filters searching for telltale
words. So, Viagra would become V1@gra.

When anti-spam experts clamped down on this, the spammers began to
send messages embedded in a graphic instead of plain text. It is
harder for filters to scan pictures.

Random extracts from classic books are often included to confuse
filters looking for keywords.

Anti-spam laws have had mixed results.

The first U.S. convictions came last year, while Britain has yet to
charge anyone under 2003 anti-spam legislation.

It is difficult to fight spam because the problem crosses
international borders, said a spokesman for the UK Information
Commissioner's Office, the body which enforces the law.

Some believe laws and filters won't defeat spam.

It will only end when people stop buying diet pills, herbal highs and
sexual performance enhancers, said Dave Rand, of Internet security firm
Trend Micro.

"The products they are selling by spam are exactly the same products
that they sold in the Middle Ages," he said. "This really is a human
problem, not a computer problem."

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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