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Computer scientists are advocating the targeting of card-processing middlemen as a way of clamping down on spam.

Improving spam filters and takedown efforts against botnets, the main source of the vast majority of junk mail, have been among the main focus of spam fighters of late. Computer researchers at the University of California, San Diego and University of California, Berkeley are taking a slightly different tack in the fight against junk mail, targeting the small number of firms prepared to handle credit card transactions for spamvertised websites.

The researchers have discovered that the vast majority (95 per cent) of the credit card payments to unlicensed pharmaceutical sites are handled by just three payment processing firms – based in Azerbaijan, Denmark and Nevis, in the West Indies, respectively.

By putting the squeeze on these firms it might be possible to choke the flow of money to spammers, making spam less profitable and, hopefully, less prevalent. Pharmacy spam levels fluctuate but the class of junk mail has long been the biggest single category of spam.

The findings came after three months of analysing spam data, broad crawling of naming and hosting infrastructures, and over 100 purchases from spam-advertised sites. The study discovered that payment-processing for replica and software products advertised through spam was also monetised using merchant services from just a handful of banks.

Spam makes up 74.8 per cent of all email messages, compared to 90 per cent last year, according to the latest statistics from Symantec, published last week. The net security efforts credits botnet takedown efforts, most notably against the infamous Rustock botnet, for the decrease.

A paper on the California University research, entitled Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain, which presents an interesting overview of the business models behind the junk mail that curses all our inboxes, can be found here (16-page pdf/2.3MB).

Over the years, a highly sophisticated business network has evolved around the delivery of junk mail messages. Components of the spam ecosystem include "bulletproof hosting", order fulfilment and payment processing, among many others, as explained in much greater depth in the paper. ®

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