Whos Behind the Spam Surge?

Opinion: Botnets are doing more with less, and some say the next-generation software is just beginning to spread. Ask me again in March.

As I discussed several weeks ago, everyones seen that there has been a massive surge in spam over the last couple of months. More researchers are weighing in on whats behind it.

One point many sources make, and I made in my last column, is that there was a "Christmas Spike" last year too. Spam shot up roughly from November 2005 through January 2006 and then tailed off until the late 06 surge, yielding a bowl-shaped curve for the year.

Will this year have a tail-off in February too? Ask me in March, but the people at MessageLabs dont expect to see one. They see a steadily increasing spam load through 2007, pushing the limits of our tolerance.


Like Postini, with which I talked for my last column, MessageLabs is a hosted secure mail vendor. Such vendors process a tremendous amount of e-mail to and from areas all over the world (Postini was the biggest last time I checked).

This puts them in an excellent position to make judgments about trends in e-mail generally, such as the overall prevalence of spam. I trust their numbers more than I trust those of plain software vendors, although its worth noting that all these security vendors have an interest in the numbers looking bad.

The MessageLabs 2006 Annual Security Report places a great deal of responsibility for the surge on the SpamThru Trojan/bot. MessageLabs isnt not the first; SecureWorks made this claim not long after SpamThru hit the Internet. It was SecureWorks that spread the word that SpamThru had made the leap of sophistication of downloading and installing a hacked version of Kaspersky Anti-Virus in order to keep the system for itself and remove other malware.

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MessageLabs said it thinks SpamThru is a breakthrough program, a harbinger of techniques inevitably to be copied by other spambots. The company compared SpamThru to Sobig, which, several years ago, really launched the spambot phenomenon big-time.

SpamThru, according to MessageLabs, is much more robust than the typical bot based on other popular malware like Sobig and Bagle. Its capable of operating more independently of central control than others. And even so, MessageLabs claims that SpamThru bots are operating at far less than their capacity.

So why does Symantec rank SpamThru a "Very Low" threat? And why does neither Symantec nor Sophos mention the Kaspersky Anti-Virus connection? McAfee said of this malware (McAfee and some others call it "DComServ"):

"It is believed that the Trojan downloads a copy of Kaspersky Anti-Virus to scan the local system to remove malware other than itself but we have not witnessed this as the remote sites the Trojan attempts to contact are no longer available." How about Kaspersky? I think this ("SpamTool.Win32.Agent.r") is Kasperskys write-up on it, but it basically says, "We dont know anything about this."

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at larryseltzer@ziffdavis.com.

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