Welcome to the Spam Economy

The SEC's 'Operation Spamalot' and its recent moves to suspend trading on 35 spam-touted companies are actions against a unified spam economy.

The Securities and Exchange Commission said that its actions to freeze proceeds from a suspected high-tech pump-and-dump stock scheme and its suspension of stock trading on 35 companies touted in spam are two unrelated incidents.

Others beg to differ.

Dimitri Alperovitch, principal research scientist at Secure Computing, described such spamming and pump-and-dump schemes as part of the same unified spam economy.

Profits from that economy start at botnets or zombie PCs, which are rented out to spammers. Spam goes out touting the value of a chosen company. Excited victims buy into the scheme and buy up stocks in the touted companies. The spammer within a few days sells the stock, pocketing a tidy profit, leaving victims with stocks that are virtually worthless.

"A lot of these guys we believe are renting botnets from spammers distributing Viagra and other types of spam," Alperovitch said in an interview with eWEEK. "A lot [of the botnet controllers] may be getting paid in … the stock of the company theyre trying to promote. They can use the increased price of the stocks to sell it off and make their profit that way."

With the ill-gotten profit, he said, the spammers/pump-and-dumpers then buy stock in another company whose value they will tout, and the cycle begins anew.

Helene T. Glotzer, associate director of the SECs Northeast Regional Office, told eWEEK that the SEC has been grappling with how to deal with spam e-mail for some time now. Although the Commission has taken action in the past, she said, this is the first time its tried to do so on a widespread basis.

"We thought it would be a good way to get messages out to investors based on that they should never invest based on spam," she said.

This is the way the boiler room operators have come to operate, replacing the phone calls they used to make 20 years ago to generate interest, Glotzer said. Within a space of time of the spam e-mail being sent out, theres a spike in price. After a few days, the stock pumpers dump their stock and leave investors with "just about worthless stocks."

/zimages/1/28571.gifRomanian hacker broadcasts eBay customer accounts. Click here to read more.

The SEC "will continue to monitor spam and issue trading suspensions whenever we find inappropriate," she said. "Were also invested in investigating companies and entities and individuals profiting from these spam: Is there any role the company itself was playing, or was it a victim of a spam campaign?" she said.

It relies on working with regulatory companies, she said, and looking at trading price spikes.

The SEC has found that many of the 35 companies suspended last week had been involved in numerous spam campaigns over the last few years. The common scene is these companies trade on pink sheets, she said.

"These companies dont have to file financial statements with the SEC, brokers dont have to do due diligence before theyre allowed to solicit investments for them."

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