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Penis pill spam: The hard figures

$1,600 per spam run a day?

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The economics of male enhancement pill spammers have been laid bare by security researcher Dmitry Samosseiko.

Samosseiko, of Sophos, uncovered research that showed how Canadian pharmacy spam punting unlicensed prescription medicines including Viagra is largely the work of partnerka, the Russian affiliates of spam and malware distributors. Google's search results identify 124,000 Canadian pharmacy websites.

The Sophos researcher was able to examine the orders of one such site because cybercroooks had left the system open to scrutiny. He discovered that the average value of an order was $200, with a commission fee of as much as 40 per cent.

Log files also revealed over 20 drug purchases per day per spam campaign, resulting in $1,600 paid in commission fees per day.

The data refers to GlavMed, one of the oldest and biggest partnerka in the Russian pharma-business. The PHP-based e-commerce backend available for download from GlavMed’s portal powers the ‘Canadian Pharmacy’ sites advertised in spam.

"This partnerka is open to the public but requires an invitation from another network member," Samosseiko writes. "Its main brand is the notorious 'Canadian Pharmacy', which is all too familiar to everyone through massive email spam campaigns that seem never to end. This spam is tied to a sister entity of GlavMed, called SpamIt (spamit.com), which is a closed private network of email spam affiliates that has proven hard to infiltrate.

"The members of SpamIt are allegedly the group behind the Storm, Waledec and potentially Conficker botnets, responsible for email distribution and fast-flux hosting of the spam websites."

Although GlavMed is the biggest operator in the unlicensed prescription drug affiliate business many other players exist including Stimul-cash.com, Rx-partners, Rxcash.biz, Evapharmacy, Rx-Signup.com and DrugRevenue. Most concentrate exclusively on web promotion methods, while a minority unofficially support traffic generated through spam emails.

Samosseiko's research also looked at the activity of Russian spam affiliates more generally. Smut websites, sites touting counterfeit goods and scareware operations form the other mainstays of these affiliates' dodgy business dealings. Samosseiko describes these groups as "second generation spammers", more organised and secretive than their earlier counterparts and driven underground by anti-spam laws.

The economics of these group's scareware operations is described in more depth in our earlier story here.

Redirecting web surfers to dodgy locations is far more of a focus for these miscreants than email spam. Black SEO techniques such as spamdexing, 'doorway' pages and spamming blogs or forums is a favourite technique of these groups.

Doorway sites are locations that host content created for a particular topic or search phrases. After a search engine indexes a doorway site containing a high density of relevant keywords it leads on towards an increase in the page rank of sites mentioned on the page. The gangs or heir associates also use DNS Trojans to hijack web search.

Samosseiko outlined his research during a presentation at the Virus Bulletin conference in Geneva on Thursday. His paper, one of the best we've read on the economics of spam and cybercrime for years, can be found here. ®

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