Anatomy of a spambot

Your computer could be busy right now making money for someone else. But that’s not the worst thing that spambots do.

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For security pros, spambots are known enemies. For the uninitiated, they are unknown entities. And yet they proliferate like ants at a picnic or teens on messaging apps. You might be receiving countless messages from bots every day, and even worse, a bot might be sending out unwanted emails from your computer right now, making you an unwilling participant in digitized mayhem.

As with any unknown, it can be helpful to understand how spambots work, what they do, how they proliferate and what you can do to protect yourself from being coerced into running one of them.

How it all starts

Before you understand how a spambot infects your computer and how it works, it’s worth exploring how they come into existence in the first place.

Thomas Pore, director of IT and services at Plixer, a malware detection company, told Computerworld some of the gory details. It usually starts when hackers, many of them overseas, in places such as Russia and China, purchase a database of email addresses on the dark web.

This is easier than it sounds, and it’s getting easier all of the time. When Yahoo recently announced that all 3 billion of its user accounts had been breached in 2013 — including information such as email addresses, passwords and dates of birth — the news probably didn’t surprise spambot creators. In all likelihood, they had been using that data in their bots for years. Spambots feed on email addresses and can’t run without them. The origin of any spambot always involves a collection of emails.

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