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Access to the 10,000 compromised Hotmail accounts at the centre of a high profile breach might be obtained for as little as $90 on the black market.

Rik Ferguson, a security researcher at Trend Micro, argues that the importance of the online publication of 10,000 Live ID login credentials on developer website PasteBin.com and that the subsequent upload of thousands of assorted Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL passwords and usernames has been grossly exaggerated.

Ferguson contends that contrary to media reports, it is only the way the data was publicly exposed rather than the volume of compromised accounts involved that is noteworthy.

"There is a thriving underground market in stolen email account credentials and the numbers of accounts for sale on any given day easily number over the 30,000 or so that have been exposed in this latest story [security incident]," Ferguson writes.

Spammers use compromised webmail accounts to send spam. Because such spam runs can be targeted to arrive only at the contacts listed within a compromised account, they have a greater chance of being received, opened and acted upon. Access to webmail accounts can be bought for very little through underground forums.

"Using the current prices of one single vendor who has multiple tens of thousands of stolen accounts for sale, we can estimate the value of 10,000 Hotmail account credentials at a measly $90 (US dollars), that is of course applying the 10 per cent discount that the vendor is offering for purchases of over 10k accounts," Ferguson writes.

"This is not a 'massive phishing campaign' - it is simply the ugly backside of online crime sticking out of the water for a second as they dive back into murkier depths," he concludes.

Circumstantial evidence has emerged that spammers have seized on the leaked webmail lists (quickly taken offline but still easily recoverable) in a spam-run promoting fraudulent electronics stores in the far east (see story here).

It remains unclear how the webmail IDs were obtained in the first place. Mary Landesman, a security researcher at ScanSafe, has questioned the conventional wisdom that they are the result of a phishing attack. A dump from a keylogging data Trojan is an equally likely explanation, she argues. ®

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