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Domains of thieves

Nov 25, 20033 mins

* Spammers and their domain tricks

In recent articles, I’ve been looking briefly at some of the nasty ways spammers are eluding search-string-based anti-spam filters. I mentioned that because many of these messages now put their text into images to avoid the scanners, we are forced to pay more attention to the domains mentioned in the body and in the e-mail headers.

The headers are problematic. The criminals who send spam think nothing of forging their headers to evade filters and to escape retribution (legal and illegal).

Nonetheless, I have noticed a few major spam houses that have been using yet another trick in their attempts to infiltrate our in-boxes. They use domain names with constantly changing server names. Thus, for example, I noticed that a particularly bad spam house (let’s call it, say, “”) is now sending out its useless ads for useless products using addresses ending in,,, and so on. Unfortunately, the anti-spam tool I’m currently using (maybe not for long) seems to have trouble parsing these domain names; even though the rejection list includes, it regularly allows the e-mail from a new variant to get through. Clearly, anti-spammer software has to be able to cope with this elementary technique when looking at the headers.

More important, though, is that any spam where the nasties expect to receive a response is going to have to have some reliable address in it – whether a real e-mail address (rare) or a Web URL.

I think that these real contact points are a true vulnerability for the Bad Guys. By compiling shared lists of the contact addresses used by the people advertising via spam, it should be possible to spread the signature files widely to users and perhaps to all anti-spam providers.

The situation reminds me of the early days of the anti-virus industry. When I was the first Secretary of the Anti-Virus Product Developers’ Consortium (AVPD) sponsored by the then-NCSA (later ICSA Labs and TruSecure) in the early 1990s, the idea of sharing virus signature strings among competing anti-virus vendors struck some observers as ludicrous.

However, I remember Bob Bales and Paul Gates arguing with the vendors that it was no stranger than having medical or biochemical information about diseases and toxic materials shared among competing pharmaceutical companies. The companies could compete on how well they fought the problems rather than concealing information about the problems. The industry agreed, and now anti-virus companies routinely work with the AVPD and other organizations to share knowledge about new malicious software.

So I think that anti-spam software developers ought to be sharing knowledge of spam-recognition strings too. After all (I can hear the complaints about this pun already) domain thing is to fight the spam.

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