Spam Nation: The Origins of Cybercrime & Consumer Habits

I recently had the chance to see Brian Krebs speak at his book reading of Spam Nation. Krebs is at the forefront of investigative reporting related to the dark dealings of organized cybercrime. His work is more pressing than ever considering these three factors:

  • The never ending string of publicly acknowledged data breaches
  • The near ubiquity of PII (publicly identifiable information) about consumers that is available online
  • The need to salvage some sense of identity integrity online

In Spam Nation, Krebs reveals the origins of spam, which security experts like Kaspersky claim represents upwards of 70% of total email traffic. Let’s take a look at how this came to be.

In the beginning, there was spam…

Krebs carefully details the origins of spam and cybercrime, starting with cheap marketing tactics and moving onto its shocking growth and longevity through fake, generic pharmaceuticals. He interviewed hundreds of people who had purchased drugs illegally over the Internet and found that these were the main factors:

  • Affordability: Prescription drugs are expensive. Many Americans still live without insurance and are looking for alternative ways to access the meds they need.
  • Confidentiality: For health issues that people deem embarrassing, these sites offer consumers their desired privacy.
  • Convenience: Order online without a prescription? Have it delivered within a day or two? The promise of expedience is enough to talk consumers into buying.
  • Dependence: Prescription drugs that have been restricted in the U.S., like oxycodone, are highly addictive and the Internet underground is the place where the self-medicating addict can continue their fix after a prescription runs out.

Who’s really to blame…

With so much negative press focusing on the data breaches at Target, Anthem, Home Depot, etc., it is often overlooked that consumers have a tremendous amount of responsibility for the explosion of spam. This recent story on ABC News: Why Everyone’s to Blame for Identity Theft explains that we all play a part in how we use and abuse technology. The constant trade off between convenience and security in this connected world is compromising everyone’s ability to stay private, and growing spam.

Perhaps the saddest reality about spam is that it is not all that profitable for the creators of this Internet bandwidth hog. Krebs estimates that the biggest and best spammers operate on a 20% profit margin. The cost to society is huge, though. UCSD Professor Stefan Savage said, “These guys running these pharma programs are not Donald Trumps… for these guys to make modest riches, we need a multibillion-dollar security industry to deal with them.” In short, the proverbial rotten apple is spoiling the barrel.

The truth is that greed, fear and curiosity drive consumer behavior and lead us to compromise our own online integrity. Last year Whitepages was featured in several news stories related to the IRS scams and the innovative “one ring” scam. We make an effort to protect our users from spam. That’s why we made products like Identity Check, which along with validating a person’s identity can tell you if their phone number is suspected of spam. It’s one way that Pro helps keep your business safe.

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