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Analysis & Opinion
05.07.10 You’ve Got Mail
By Svetlana Kononova

Russia ranks in third place on the list of countries distributing spam, behind the United States and India, a recent report from the Kaspersky Lab found. Up to 80 percent of spam targeted at Internet users in North America and Europe is generated by a group of around 100 professional spam gangs, a statement from The Spamhaus Project, an international NGO tracking the Internet's spam operations, said. A recent survey conducted by this NGO found that seven out of the ten most active spammers in the world are based in former Soviet countries: three in Russia, three in Ukraine and one in Estonia.

Developed countries are the most attractive targets for spammers and fraudsters. There is a better chance of making profit off users in wealthy countries, where most users have a credit card and an online banking or an e-pay system account. The top-ten list of countries subjected to spamming attacks includes Germany, the UK, the United States, Japan, Spain, Taiwan, France, Italy and Australia. The only developing country on the top-list is India.

Spammers from the CIS, however, prefer to “work on the international market.” One of the main reasons behind their activities worldwide are “holes in law.” “Russia does not have any special law against spam. Laws indirectly linked to spam, such as federal laws regulating advertising and personal data protection, are rarely applied, and it is very difficult to convict a spammer based on these laws,” said Darya Gudkova, the head of the content analysis department at Kaspersky Lab. “Russian spammers carry out their illegal activities on a grand scale, distributing their messages in English and Russian worldwide.”

Recent surveys conducted by Kaspersky Lab, a Russian company specializing in computer security, found that approximately 70 to 80 percent of all e-mail traffic is spam. However, due to efficient spam filters, users of large e-mail services receive only a small amount of unwanted messages.

Globally, more than half of spam falls into the following categories: adult content, health, IT goods and services, personal finance and education and training. However, Russian spam has its own specifications, mostly promoting various goods, travel and holidays, accounting and legal services, real estate and mass mailing and advertising (spam) services.

The dire consequences of spam do not just include time wasted on reading unwanted messages. Numerous fraudsters also send out spam messages to trick users into parting with their money. “A widespread kind of fraud in Russia are spam messages asking users to send ‘free’ text messages to short, four-digit numbers to take part in a lottery, win prizes, download some software, etc. In fact, these text messages cost much more than an average SMS, and the victim gets nothing,” Gudkova said. “This kind of fraud is possible because in Russia, anyone can rent a short number, while in many other countries short numbers are reserved for corporations only and the registration procedure is complicated.”

The most dangerous kind of spam are scams – letters asking for money or personal banking data. In same cases the messages come with a news peg. For example, scammers used the Yukos affair to offer the recipients a share of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s money in cash. The messages were in English and were addressed mostly to foreign recipients, supposedly because they would be easier to lure with an offer of cash.
Sometimes scam letters are masterpieces written by people with a good sense of humor. For example, one supposed astronaut was sent to a Soviet space station 14 years ago, and he couldn’t return back to earth because it is too expensive. The miserable “astronaut,” stuck in space, asked people to convert his accumulated salary from a bank account to cash to help him return home.

Besides traditional ways of distributing spam via e-mail, fraudsters now focus also their attention on social networks. “The main scammers operating in social networks, including dating services, are probably fraudsters who sell stolen credit cards and databases, as well as so-called ‘traffic hunters’ – people who will do anything to draw more traffic to their sites,” said Olesya Kuznetsova, the PR director at the Mamba dating Web site. “In social networks, spammers mostly advertise fraudulent text message services, illegal goods and pornographic sites.”

The staff of large social Web sites use different ways to minimize spam, including technology, “social moderation,” and special monitoring services. Special technology stops the incoming spam flow at the servers. However, despite multimillion dollar investments in this technology (both in hardware and software), spammers always find a way to get around the technical roadblocks. There aren’t any absolute technical solutions for protection against spam, experts say.

“Social moderation” includes programs that induce users to complain to tech support about spam and to protect their profiles from unwanted contacts. “For example, any user of Mamba can receive a ‘real’ status, confirming that this profile belongs to a real person and not a spam-bot,” Kuznetsova said. “It is a free service whereby the user submits his or her cell phone number and receives a text message with a unique code. One phone number can only register one profile. Due to this limit, spammers can’t confirm the numerous profiles they use to contact people.”

The most efficient way to combat spam is to never purchase the goods and services it advertises. Not responding to spam messages is also important. Spammers often use responses to their messages, including requests to be taken off the mailing list, to confirm that that an e-mail address is valid. “If you’ve received spam, simply notify us by pressing the ‘report spam’ button,” said Inessa Pogorzhelskaya, a spokesperson at Communications and Public Affairs at Google Russia. “When our filter system ‘sees’ that many users mark the same message as spam, it immediately starts blocking similar e-mails.”

“Never give your e-mail password away to anyone to prevent undesirable access to your address book and spam being sent out to your friends on your behalf,” Pogorzhelskaya warned. “Choose complicated passwords and change them from time to time to prevent your account from getting hacked.” Experts also advise users to avoid publishing e-mail address on universally accessible pages and never to open links received from unknown people. “Beware when Web sites inform you that you have won something, for example a free iPod, and ask for your e-mail,” Pogorzhelskaya added. “It is a kind of fraud.”

The same rules apply to security on social networks. “Never give anybody your password and ignore messages asking you to send a text message to register or delete a profile,” Kuznetsova said. “Avoid people asking for financial help and do not send even small amounts of money to people you don’t know. If you’ve decided to help somebody financially, meet the person first.”
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