95% of spam monetized through three banks

Financial infrastructure possible bottleneck for spammers.

In a recently published paper, researchers from the University of California found that 95 per cent of spamvertised products are monetized through just three banks, thus showing a potential bottleneck that may help in the fight against spam.

The researchers looked at almost one billion spamvertised URLs, or 93 million different ones, on close to 18 million different domains. They retrieved the web pages behind those URLs and classified them into categories and affiliate programs. They then looked at URLs covering the three most prominent types of product advertising spam: pharmaceutical products, replicas and software.

One part of the research concentrated on the network infrastructure used by the spammers. Apart from a registrar, which allocates them the domain, they also need to be provided with DNS and web servers for the URLs on the domain to allow access by their victims.

The research showed that surprisingly little sharing takes place: most registrars only host domains for a small number of affiliate programs and, similarly, most ISPs that deal with spammers provide DNS and web services to only a small number of affiliate programs.

Another part of the research - and one that received a lot of media attention - focused on the processing of payments made to spammers. To this end, the researchers made purchases from a relatively small number of URLs in their collection. While this is certainly controversial (after all, they did send money to the bad guys), they did not pay more than $277 to any affiliate program.

One conclusion they drew was that almost all purchases that were settled led to the delivery of goods, showing that despite their criminal nature, this is something where the spammers can be 'trusted'. Even more interesting conclusions were drawn when they looked at the banks providing the spammers with infrastructure.

It turns out that just a small number of banks act as transaction settlers for the spammers and, not unsurprisingly given the costs involved, spammers rarely switch banks. Just three banks, based in Azerbaijan, St. Kitts & Nevis and Latvia, provide the payment infrastructure for 95% of today's product spam.

It goes too far to say that simply closing down these banks would signal the end of spam, as some reports have suggested. In the past, spammers have shown a surprising ability to bounce back upon being delivered a significant blow. Moreover, a significant portion of spam sent out today does not directly sell goods.

Still, this is very valuable research that does reveal an important bottleneck for spammers. By concentrating on the financial infrastructure, the industry might be able to reduce the harm caused by spammers. A good start has already been made when DnB Nord, the Norwegian parent company of the Latvian bank that allegedly settled spammers' transactions, confirmed it had stopped working with that particular customer.

The full paper can be found in PDF format here while F-Secure said the study's findings confirmed some research they had performed in the past here.

Posted on 25 May 2011 by Virus Bulletin

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