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Social networking sites have become the new front in the war against spam, according to security watchers.

In the six months leading up to March 2008, social networking sites saw a four-fold growth in the amount of spam on their network. At several major social networking sites, 30 per cent of new accounts created are automated fraudulent 'zombie' accounts, designed to be used for spam and other malicious attacks, according to anti-spam firm Cloudmark.

JF Sullivan, VP of marketing at Cloudmark, said the type of spam advertised through social networks is the same type as that advertised by email spam and punted by much the same people. "There's an implicit trust in social networking. People don't think they're going to be attacked with spam," Sullivan told El Reg. "People don't trust email anymore. Spammers are following peoples' online habits."

Mobile spam, by contrast, is sent by different group of individuals.

Social networking spam can be messages between users or posts to walls or other similar applications. Social network spammers most often hijack accounts using fake log-in pages. Phishing-like tactics, password guessing and the use of Trojans to capture keystrokes are also in play.

Junk messages, rigged to appear as though they came from their friends, are more likely to be acted on by recipients on social networking sites compared to the same messages received by email. Social network spammers try to recruit friends by posting profile pictures that depict them as attractive young women. By recruiting people into their groups or networks it's easier for spammers to subsequently send them spam.

All the major social networks have a problem with spam, according to Sullivan, with volumes of spam ranging from 15 to 30 per cent.

We haven't noticed much of a problem from spam on the social networks we frequent, but the existence of the behaviour described by Cloudmark is illustrated by the prosecution of notorious spammer Sanford Wallace. A judge awarded MySpace a $230m anti-spam judgment against Wallace and his partner Walter Rines this week after the pair were found responsible for orchestrating a phishing scam designed to harvest MySpace login credentials, prior to bombarding members with messages punting gambling and smut websites. As many as 730,000 bogus messages, rigged to appear as though they came from their friends, were sent to MySpace members.

Pete Simpson, ThreatLab Manager at Clearswift, said that social networking sites are attractive targets for spammers and identity thieves, because of their large, technically-naive and thus easily duped populations of users. Simpson reckons that educating users has a more important role to play than simply applying a technology solution to the problem.

"As long as gullible users fall prey to social engineering, the spammers and scammers will continue their attacks. In particular the predators are starting to use data-mining techniques to create spam lists, sorted on geographic and demographic criteria. Such lists are of premium value to spammers," Simpson explained. "When people come to understand that open social networking carries real risks, not only their privacy but their pockets through identity theft, we can expect to see demand for much more compartmentalized social networking environments," he added. ®

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