These days, it seems like every day represents a new threat that had previously been quietly lurking in the farthest, most remote reaches of the Internet. Deliberate breaches in data security, state sponsored hacking teams revealed, and an ever-brewing war between idealistic hackers and randomly-chosen agencies and companies. All serious in nature, we see unsettling hints that this war is not only ongoing, but in many ways it feels like the war hasn’t even really begun.
With all the focus on deliberate hacks and the sheer amount of data that’s being released into the cloud, spammers must feel like their lives are getting easier, what with the news media focusing on the former and law enforcement agencies scrambling to lock their virtual doors and windows from the likes of Anonymous and LulzSec. True, the art of spamming suffered a major blow earlier this year with the takedown of Rustock; but when the U.S. declared war on hackers a few weeks back, it was easy to forget the junk that infests our inboxes and focus on the ‘other show’ – cyber hacking.
Spam may not be as splashy and headline-driven as cyber attacks but it can be just as devastating. In a time when it really hasn’t gone away – other bots have taken up the standard since the death of Rustock – we decided to consider the main reasons why spam, as detestable and irritating as it is, is not going away.
The Art of the Scam is as Old as Time
Sometimes it’s easy to think that spam is a new concept, given rise by the enabling technology of the Internet. In fact, the con is as old as society itself. In the old days (i.e., pre-Internet), the scammer was the confidence man, the hustler, the snake oil charmer, the grifter. There is even a certain romantic notion about these types, glorified in Hollywood movies like The Freshman, The Sting and Paper Moon. For good reason, too. There’s always been a certain guilty pleasure in rooting for the scoundrel. In literature, this character is known as the antihero, the protagonist who doesn’t deserve to be liked. Think Sam Spade or Dirty Harry.
In fact, if the Internet has done anything, it’s made the scam – something regarded as an art form in some circles – available to nonprofessional scammers. All the Internet has managed to do is help spread the infection and empower the scammers to take their show on the road, even if they’re horrible at it.
Greed Is Good
A phrase immortalized by the fictional Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, “Greed is good” has a certain ring of truth to it when one thinks about the opportunities the Internet gives us. New forms of commerce have exploded in the information age. Industries have sprouted and billions have been made, all thanks to the Internet. One has to look no further than Google or Facebook to see how profoundly the Internet has changed the world’s economy.
So why is it wrong for spammers to get in on the greed? Because obviously, most of us were brought up to understand that one does an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. There’s nothing honest about bilking people out of their life savings.
Intelligence is a Rare Commodity
Let’s face it: spam often comes in the forms of ill-conceived schemes and ridiculous grammar. The quality in these schemes is distressingly mediocre. ‘Distressing’ because it baffles the mind how people can still be scammed when the collective IQs of the schemers appear somewhere on the scale between rocks and lichen. But this is good news. After all, if the sum of all the cheap drugs, phishing scams and scareware schemes were finessed, elaborate and effective, perhaps the U.S. would be declaring war on the spammers instead of the hackers.
It’s not just the poor writing, however. It’s also the ludicrous scenarios that these guys are selling. Let’s take a look at some passages from actual spam:
Microsoft Corporation wish to notify all online customers as we celebrates the 35th year anniversary 2011;
But if you do not remember me, you might have receive an email from me in the past regarding a multi-million-dollar business proposal which we never concluded.
This is not a deception or anything related to scam because I do not need you to send me money.I will like to know you well enough.
We’ve all seen it, time and again. So much so that the head shaking stops and we become desensitized. But the sad news remains that people are being scammed.
It Will Always Be Easier to Break Something than to Make Something
No matter how much attention is given to spam schemes, phishing scams and scareware tactics, the spammers are always going to be more effective, since it’s easier to break something than it is to make something. Like hackers, they always find a way. When Rustock was taken down, it wasn’t long before Bagle and other botnets took up the slack.
And spammers are getting more resourceful. On June 16, Microsoft announced the results of a survey which stated that 22% of respondents had received a spear phishing phone call from someone pretending to represent Microsoft in an attempt to gain access to the person’s computer and or credit card number. This story hits home a bit, since this writer received such a phone call last week.
Perhaps the most compelling reason why spam isn’t going away is that it works. In the Microsoft phishing scheme mentioned above, of the 22% of respondents who reported receiving the call, 3% were scammed (not this writer – the fake Microsoft caller was quickly dispatched). But if you doubt that these guys are making money, look no further than this story from the Mail Online, which reports that spammers using text messages to find accident victims and redirect them to law firms are raking in £175 million a year.
Guess it works.