Spam King Arrested, Spam Traffic…Increases!

June, 2007

A week after being indicted by a federal grand jury, Robert Soloway, the so-called “Spam King,” was arrested on May 30th by U.S. marshals in Seattle, Washington. In detailing the arrest to the public, U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan said, “Spam is the scourge of the Internet and Robert Soloway is one of its most prolific practitioners.”

Spam King Arrested
The 27-year-old Soloway has been officially charged with identity theft, money laundering, and mail, wire, and email fraud. Sullivan said that the case is the first in the U.S. in which federal prosecutors will use aggravated identity theft statutes to prosecute a spammer for taking over someone else’s domain.

While the Spam King could face decades in prison, there is some doubt as to how this will play out in the courts. U.S. prosecutors have expressed their concern as to what guidelines will be used to determine the sentencing. However, while U.S. prosecutors may face a tough battle in the court system, their efforts are being applauded by the world at large.

Spam Volume Increases
The initial reaction to Soloway’s arrest was one of relief from the global Internet community, but many security vendors and pundits cautioned that it would have little impact on worldwide spam traffic. According to MessageLabs, a company that tracks global email messages for evidence of malware, the spam rate has not dropped since the Spam Kings arrest–actually, it has increased. MessageLabs monitors approximately 180 million emails a day in its tracking of spam rates. The company reports that percentage of email considered spam increased from about 44% in May to almost 48% over the first few days of June. The increase in spam traffic was also noted by Spamhaus, an international non-profit organization founded to track and fight spam on a global basis. Spamhaus reports that spammers in the Ukraine and Russia quickly filled the void created by Soloway’s arrest, causing a spike in spam activity over the past several days.

Computer Economics interviewed Paul Henry, senior vice-president of Secure Computing, regarding the impact of Solway’s arrest. “Spam trends regularly move 8% or so in a given week. Soloway’s missing contribution would simply blend in with the normal noise in this shifting trend,” he said. “For every spammer shut down, there are hundreds of large operators ready, eager, and willing to fill the void.”

While Soloway’s arrest may be important in the U.S., from a global perspective its impact is mostly symbolic in nature. His arrest does send a clear message that U.S. law enforcement agencies are stepping up their efforts to fight spam. However, with more than 50 billion spam messages sent every day, Soloway’s arrest is of little concern to spam gangs that stand to make large fortunes and, at least at present, can easily avoid prosecution.

So, is there any hope that spam volume will subside at some point in the future?

According to Henry, while legislation and prosecution efforts are important factors, the key to fighting spam may be to eliminate the ability of the spammer to make a profit. “The new Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) specification could significantly increase spammers’ cost of doing business by forcing them to create legitimate domains from which they send their spam,” he said. “The IT industry has already delivered reputation-based mechanisms, such as TrustedSource, that allow companies to make determinations as to the reputation of the email sender’s network.” He went on to say that combining reputation-based mechanisms with the power of DKIM to require spammers to use legitimate domains could make business much more costly for spammers.

Multi-Pronged Approach Needed
The final solution in the fight against spam and other cyber-crimes will require a multi-pronged approach. It will require companies and organizations around the world to continually upgrade their infrastructures with new tools designed to protect their networks. It will also require use of a scheme such as DKIM, that will increase the spammers’ cost of doing business, hitting them where it hurts the most–the bottom line. It will also require IT security vendors to continue their efforts to build even more effective anti-spam deterrents. Additionally, national governments will need to step up their legislative, enforcement, and prosecution efforts. This will be a challenge since many countries simply do not have the resources to fight cyber-crime or they simply don’t care.

While efforts such as last week’s arrest of the current Spam King are step in the right direction, this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

June 2007

For additional insights on IT industry efforts to fight spam, please read our recent article The Relative Effectiveness of Spam-Blocking Solutions.

For information on current trends in IT security threats and changes in threat levels over the past year, please see our recently-released report: Trends in IT Security Threats: 2007.

For information on the threats and costs posed by malware attacks, please see our new report entitled 2007 Malware Report: The Economic Impact of Viruses, Spyware, Adware, Botnets, and Other Malicious Code.