Researchers: Kill spam e-mails by choking off scammers' cash

Researchers: Kill spam e-mails by choking off scammers' cash

Consumer Reports News: May 20, 2011 04:28 PM

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With billions of junk e-mails floating around the global Internet, it seems like our inboxes are forever flooded with unwanted spam. But researchers may have identified a spammers' Achilles heel in that could bring an end to those annoying messages that hawk cheap prescription drugs and other knock-off goods.

The New York Times reported that computer scientists at two universities in California, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, recently completed a joint study on the nature of spam. For about three months, they willingly exposed their e-mail accounts to almost a billion scam messages. And then, they did what every online security expert warns against: They actually purchased the items being offered.

But by spending several thousands of dollars on approximately 120 bogus items, the researchers discovered what they believe to be the spammers' "choke point." A clear majority—95 percent—of their online payments were handled by just three financial institutions: one in Azerbaijan, one in Denmark, and one in Nevis, in the West Indies.

The scientists conclude that because e-mail scammers rely on just a few banks and an even smaller number of credit card processors, the spam business could be easily disrupted by financial regulators and police. If credit card companies, for example, blocked transactions to those few global banks, the spammers would bear the cost of constantly finding new institutions to process the payments.

Stefan Savage, one of the researchers at the University of California, San Diego, told the New York Times:

In the end, spam is an advertising business. However, it only makes sense if you can find a way to take people's money. The defenders can, in principle, identify which banks the scammers are using far faster than they [spammers] can get new banks—and for basically zero cost.

The complete findings of the research, conducted by Dr. Savage and his colleagues, will be presented on Tuesday at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in Oakland, California.

The July issue of Consumer Reports has more news about the latest online threats to your personal data.

If you're tired of spam in your e-mail, check out Consumer Reports Guide to Online Security for useful tips. And our latest Ratings of security software (available to subscribers) can help you decide which security program has the best anti-spam tools.

Study Sees Way to Win Spam Fight [NY Times]
Spamalytics: An Empirical Analysis of Spam Marketing Conversion (PDF) [University of California: Berkeley]
Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain (PDF) [University of California: San Diego]
IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy [IEEE]

Paul Eng

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