The Spammers Strike Back

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-11-06 Print this article Print

Opinion: The recent surge in spam volume is due to the assertiveness of botnets and an increase in the sophistication of their spamming efforts.

Everybodys seen it by now. Spam is up like gangbusters in the last few months. And not just in volume; a lot more of it is getting through filtering mechanisms that had previously been pretty reliable. Its an aggravating and depressing situation. A number of factors have contributed to the situation, and what they all have in common, unfortunately, is that spammers are getting much more sophisticated.

Botnets have gotten so sophisticated that theyre almost impossible to shut down. This surge of spam is, perhaps, a show of strength, as well as the botmasters exercising the fruits of their efforts developing an underground network.

How big is the surge? Postini, the largest hosted secure e-mail provider out there, handling over 1 billion messages a day, ought to know, and know in real time. The company says spam volume is up 120 percent over the last year, but 59 percent in the last two months. Thats in line with numbers Ive heard bandied about elsewhere, and its a huge rate of increase.

Another factor is what security vendor Borderware calls "anti-anti-spam spam," meaning spam that attempts to defeat anti-spam measures. Spammers have learned all sorts of tricks.

One spamming Trojan horse installs a pirated anti-virus program to protect itself. Click here to read more.

For instance, if a recipient rejects the message, they are attempting to resend the message like a real mail server will. Spammers historically have had naive mail transfer programs that send a message and then move on, ignoring any errors.

Many anti-spam systems rely on this characteristic to employ a technique called graylisting. They reject the message once from any sender they do not recognize and accept it on resubmission, whitelisting the sender at the same time. This all assumes that a spammer wont retransmit. Graylisting seems headed for the ash heap of anti-spam history.

Next page: Anti-anti-spam spam.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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