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Link-based spam on the increase


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June 12, 2007

According to Symantec Corp., security experts are now starting to say that image-based spam messages are quickly becoming less popular than they were about 6 months ago. Overall, e-mail spam messages that embed text in graphical images to literally hide themselves from email filters might have a successor in the form of URL or link-based spam.

Symantec is saying that spam messages making use of text embedded in graphics peaked in late December 2006, early January 2007 when it accounted for about 51.8 percent of global spam.

According to the latest "The State of Spam" monthly report released by Symantec this week, those numbers dropped dramatically to less than 16 percent in May 2007.

The security software company is able to regularly track spam trends using customer feedback, and two million dummy email accounts called the Symantec Probe Network that collects spam samples from around the globe.

Without listing specific numbers, the report suggests Symantec "has observed an increase in spam that uses links and embedded URLs to reference images" contained in the email message.

Doug Bowers, senior director at Symantec said "it appears that spammers have found a new way to get their messages out."

Bowers said the method simply involves sending potential victims an enticing email message containing a link which "references" an image of the advertisement the spammer is spreading.

The image, which pops up on the computer screen when the link is clicked, is not contained in the message itself, but rather it is hosted on a separate site.

The overall proliferation of image-based spam led companies to deploy spam filters that target this type of unwanted email, the Symantec security expert said.

But email filters set to sift out messages with attached or embedded images are likely to let URL-based spam through "because to the filter the spam is an HTML message that appears to be legitimate."

While Symantec has noted some increase in the use of embedded URLs only in spam ads, Bowers said, it is possible cybercrooks will use the method for Internet-based crime such as pump-and-dump stock and security schemes and phishing attacks.

The Symantec spokesperson said his company has a host of software products that can help users block both image-based and URL-based spam. He said these products are designed to analyze e-mail messages based on three key factors:

  • Message structure
  • Content search
  • Reputation of sender
  • Overall, the use of reputation technologies to counter e-mail spam and viruses is also being actively touted by other security vendors such as Trend Micro, also based in Cupertino, Calif.

    Trend Micro CEO Eva Chen says “we are seeing reputation services as another way to counter these new types of Internet threats.”

    She also noted that the nature of Web threats is changing significantly. Chen said in previous years, once a virus in a spam message, it functioned independently of the virus writer. “But today hackers use viruses included in spam e-mails as their tools to control computer networks.”

    Chen added that her company’s strategy is not just to remove "agents" detected on a computer, but to trace them back to the bot master, and cut off the IP address controlled by the bot master.

    “That way, in one shot you also protect hundreds of botted computers out there, which may be being used vehicles to send out spam.” To this end, Chen said her company offers TrendProtect, as a free "Internet reputation” service.

    “That's a browser plug-in meant for end users. We're also about to launch the same services in our corporate desktop product called Office Scan 8.0. And Symantc also has the same protection in its Web Gateway product for the enterprise.”

    At least one IT industry analyst strongly believes the drop in image-based spam can be attributed to an attitudinal change of Internet users.

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    Source: IT World Canada


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