As the Internet evolves, is there a place for spam?

Spam volumes are down dramatically, but the scourge of the Internet is smarter and more dangerous than ever

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There was a brief, halcyon day when the Internet, or rather its precursor, the Arpanet, was spam-free. But then a Digital Equipment Corporation marketer named Gary Thuerk decided to let a few hundred Arpanet users know about his new DecSystem-20 mainframes, and it was downhill from there. When consumers flocked to the Internet in the mid 1990s -- Soloway's glory days -- the open online culture provided a breeding ground for fraudsters, and soon the vast majority of all messages on the Internet was unsolicited commercial email.

Until recently, spammers were in an ugly war of attrition. As spam filters got better and better, spammers bumped up the volume of messages they pumped out. If a fraction of one percent of a million messages get through, that's not profitable. Make that a billion messages and the money starts to add up. But it now seems as though this war of escalation has subsided; not because the spammers have given up, but because the game is changing.

U.S.-based spammers have all but disappeared, scared off by prison sentences handed down to the likes of Soloway under the 2004 CAN Spam act. Even overseas there has been progress. In the past year a series of spam-spewing botnets -- Waledac, Pushdo, and most recently Rustock -- have been taken offline thanks to the efforts of law enforcement and private security researchers. And in October 2010, an affiliate marketing website called Spammit closed its doors. It was used by spammers pushing online pharmaceuticals, and was a major source of income for many spammers.

That's taken a big dent out of spam, but the nature of the business has evolved. Once a source of irritating commercial marketing messages, unsolicited mass emails are increasingly being used by scammers and criminal hackers to ply their trade.

No longer is spam just a way to sell pornography or cheap pills. Spam messages are being used to install malicious software, and for a targeted form of spamming called spearphishing that has become a particularly effective hacker technique. A spearphishing attack opened the door to RSA security and helped hackers to compromise the security of RSA's SecurID tokens.

Spammers may be getting more crafty, too.

"There has been a decline in what we're getting in our traps, but what we're seeing that's out there is smarter spam," said Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Warner helped set up a massive database at the university that vacuums up as many as a million spam messages per day.

Take Feb. 14, for example; Valentine's Day. Instead of the usual Viagra or Rolex spam, Warner saw a flood of messages advertising a legitimate florist -- FTD. That's a more targeted form of spam than what his team would typically have seen a couple of years ago. And the spammers were directing people to a legitimate Web site -- FTD Flowers -- making their money from Web marketing referral fees. If the spammers succeeded in reminding just a few absent-minded spouses to order flowers, they could make money

Another example of smart spam? Those strange emails that come from friends, telling you to visit an online pharmacy or watch a video. Criminals break into Hotmail or Gmail accounts and send messages to every one of the victims' mail contacts before anyone realizes. This type of spam -- sent between two people who know each other -- is much more likely to evade filters.

Scammers have taken this game to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter too. Sometimes they send @messages to their targets. Other times they hack into an account and use it to send out their messages. That's what happened last week to "Shaun of the Dead" actor Simon Pegg's Twitter account. It was used to spam out a Trojan horse program disguised as a screensaver to his 1.2 million followers.

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