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To Stop Spam, Follow the Money

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 25, 2011 12:15 PM

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Every new communications technology seems to bring with it its own form of spam: Today's junk mail and telemarketing, for instance, merely replaced the scourge of the unsolicited telegram (the first was sent in 1864, by a London dentist's office). Electronic spam, however, has proven unusually resilient. It continues in spite of government regulation, and also in spite of the concerted efforts of legions of IT professionals and communications experts. The problem, essentially, is that spammers use the internet's global reach to spread their operations far and wide, beyond the reach of regulators.

Now a group of computer scientists has figured out how to get the upper hand. Fifteen scientists in California and Budapest have analyzed thousands of spam emails, ordered a huge number of spam products, and discovered exactly how the spam gets made. In their new paper, "Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain," presented recently at an IEEE symposium on security, they reveal the spammers' weak-point: banks.

Each individual spam email in your inbox is only the tip of a huge global iceberg. Respond to an email hawking counterfeit Viagra, the team explains, and your computer might connect with domain registrars in Russia, domain name servers in China, web servers in Brazil, a bank in Azerbaijan, and a pharmaceutical supplier in India. Spammers work with a global network of firms because regulators can't clamp down on all of them simultaneously; moreover, they hack into random web servers and use them to send the spam, making it difficult to figure out who, exactly, is doing the spamming. The goal of all this, of course, is to make money. Spammers are businessmen, and their businesses succeed because affluent consumers far from their home-base respond to their emails and buy their products. (Incidentally, in case you're wondering: those counterfeit handbags often do get shipped and delivered.)

Most anti-spam efforts have focused on blocking the emails themselves. But the researchers have found a more fundamental weak-point in the spam enterprise: "Just three banks," they explain, "provide the payment servicing for over 95% of the spam-advertised goods in our study." The biggest payment processor is Azerigazbank, located in Azerbaijan. If you want to stop spam, they argue, there's a straightforward way to do it: Ask credit card companies to disallow transactions involving spam-type goods, like pharmaceuticals, whenever those transactions go through spam-related banks. It's comically easy, they point out, to find a new web server; it's extraordinarily difficult to find a new bank willing to process sales for counterfeit goods. Similar measures are already in place against online gambling websites.

Spam can seem ethereal, even meaningless -- just static amidst the signal of the internet. As the researchers show, though, spamming is actually a pretty down-to-earth enterprise, ultimately dependent upon factories, delivery services, and bank accounts. Cut off the money, and you cut off the spam.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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