You’ve seen the ads in your email or online: Fames supposedly hawking miracle weight-loss remedies or galaxy intelligence complements. They’re prevalent to the web, as deeply ingrained as hashtags and puppies. But even though plenty of beings fall for them , no one ever really does anything about it. Of all the security threats online, spam grades jolly low-toned on the priority list.

Which is why it’s surprising, and welcome, that GoDaddy and security firm Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42 have taken down 15,000 subdomains dedicated to selling those phony pharmaceuticals under false pretenses. The two-year investigation that produced them there offers some useful revelations into what impels these campaigns tick.


The details vary slightly from one spam scam to the next, but the campaign that Palo Alto Networks researcher Jeff White tracked follows the same basic stairs. It starts with an email, one that claims Stephen Hawking or Gwen Stefani or the Shark Tank crew blasphemes by a dodgy medical concoction. The URL is shortened, so you can’t investigate where it makes. After a got a couple of redirects, you land on a domain that looks like TMZ, E! Online, or some other legitimate site. Every single clickable ingredient on that page–even the ones that seem harmless, like a Facebook like or Contact Us form–leads to another sheet that tries to sell you bullshit drugs.

Palo Alto Networks

If they’re successful, and you give them your credit card number, two things happen. First, the affiliate marketing spammer who likely made the subdomain gets a chipped of the sale. And whoever’s peddling the bogus goods might send you a free sample–but they &# x27; ll also start accusing you as much as $ 100 a month from then on, with ongoing subscription fees hid deep in the terms of service.

“When people go to cancel, they realize that they can’t, ” says Jen Miller-Osborn, deputy managing director of threat intelligence at Unit 42. “A lot of ages when they try to contact the company , no one gets back to them. No one &# x27; s ever going to get back to them, because that’s how these companies make their money, off of these refills.”

The only recourse, Miller-Osborn says, is going to your credit card company and hoping they’ll cancel the charges.

Account Takeover

Jeff White has never fallen for one of these swindles, but like many internet users, they caught his eye several years ago. He has moved them diligently since 2017, where reference is first noticed that many of the areas appeared to share a common template. “I began noticing insignificant modifications every month until something clicked, and what once was background noise now was something of interest, ” White writes in a blog post detailing the investigation, which covered hundreds of spam sites.

On even closer inspection, he found that many of the domains being used as redirects in the spam campaign seemed to have started out as legitimate. Why, after all, would a spammer set up and to shill hoax adds-on? After some sleuthing, White detected the truth: Affiliate spammers had settlement the accounts of hundreds of GoDaddy purchasers, likely through the combined effects of a phishing campaign and credential stuffing, two common methods of obtaining or predicting people’s log-in information.

Once they had access to those details, the intruders would leave the main website alone but surreptitiously compose hundreds or even thousands of subdomains–like They would then use these so-called shadow domains to send spam emails or tournament the search-engine-optimization plan, unbeknownst to the locates &# x27; owners.

“GoDaddy recommends using multifactor authentication and different passwords on different business to avoid these types of criticizes from being successful, ” the company said in a statement. “GoDaddy takes the security of our network and our customers’ histories very seriously, and we’ll continue to collaborate with the security community to identify and resolve these types of attacks.”

Once White had identified recurring motifs in the campaign, the Unit 42 unit wrote dialogues to automate the identification of the darknes domains. He linked 15,000 illicit subdomains in all; GoDaddy shut them down in March.

Making a Dent

White isn’t the first person to look under the hood of these spam expeditions. Security reporter Brian Krebs took a close look at two major spam pharmacies in his 2014 work Spam Nation . And even the Today Show probed a specific malicious ad that demo a hoax Savannah Guthrie endorsement. But actually abolishing these networks doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.

In part that’s because, sincerely, it’s not worth it. White scratched an irritation, but it’s not one that most researchers–or law enforcement agencies–share. “The unfortunate truth is, they’ll probably be getting back after this, ” Miller-Osborn says. “It’s not the easiest thing to prosecute. It doesn’t inevitably have the biggest penalty if you did prosecute it. There’s not a ton of impetus on either side, starting after them or incitement not to do it.”

But perhaps this takedown makes an argument that there should be more of an effort to dismantle these expeditions. The dozens of decreased ties-in White saw were clicked an average rate of 273 durations each. Extrapolate that out to 15,000 subdomains, and you wind up with millions of potential victims.

Unit 42 has no insight into how many parties actually “ve fallen in love with” the swindle, and the number of credit card numbers that wound up in the sides of bad-faith drug brokers is likely much smaller. “There’s not like a 100 percentage changeover rate, ” says Crane Hassold, senior head of menace investigate at security house Agari. “You’ll have a population of potential victims who click on a relate and go to a website, but there’s a large percentage of those people who don’t end up getting compromised.”

Still, there’s a reasonablenes you see this particular scam everywhere: It’s profitable. Even if torpedoing 15,000 arenas won’t threw much of a dent in one of “the worlds largest” prevalent scourges of the web–as Miller-Osborn fully acknowledges–it at least glows a light on the problem. You can’t clear all the rats out of the sewer, but you can at least remind them that you’re there.

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