Monday, May 11, 2015

A Badly Written Account of a Bad Career

Review: Inside the Spam Cartel by “Spammer-X”

With cyber-terrorism trending in the news, and a recently-purchased stack of “obsolete” paperbacks from a local second-hand bookstore, I was most eager to read Inside the Spam Cartel

My eagerness persisted only into the second chapter—the self-professed spammer is coy in his presentation of examples, leaves out more information than he gives, and (by far the worst sin) seems unable to mate subject and verb number, use apostrophes or adverbs rationally, or spot abject incoherence in his own writing.

Aside from that, the book is intriguing in a creepy way.

The topic is one every Internet user will find interesting, and Spammer-X delivers a lot of detail about the process, purpose and payback of spamming. He has been somewhat careful about removing actual IP and eMail addresses and usernames, although this, like all his proof-reading, is not thorough. He includes a number of examples of using HTML tags to encode spam messages that will slide through spam filters, while telling us his philosophy of spam. 

This philosophy boils down to: “I can do it, and you can’t stop me, so it’s all right. Besides, I get paid to do it.”

Even so, Spammer-X is aware how his activities are viewed by others. Some chapters seem to be an effort to excuse his actions, others are almost apologetic. He will carefully spell out how to “hijack” a Web page for spamming purposes, as if to provide useful information for the IT crew of that site. Then he will add in one of his Notes from the Underground, “I think I will keep this [next] bit secret in case I want to use it again…”.

The book’s theme wavers back and forth between these two extremes, as if the author doesn’t really want to give up his behavior (as long as he’s getting away with it), but does want to be respected as an expert who offers help. He extends that help to would-be spammers and those who oppose their efforts with equal detail.

I found most interesting the chapter detailing phishing and eMail scams, including the “419 scam”. You probably have encountered the 419 scam as the Nigerian Finance Minister scheme: an eMail promises you part of a multi-million-dollar sum for your assistance in setting up a bank account to move the funds into from overseas. The scam gets its name, according to Spammer-X, from the code 419 for Fraud in Nigeria, the source of more than half of all such scams.

Inadvertent humor from typos and misapplication of the spell-checker supplies some lighter moments. Occam’s Razor is cited as “Akum’s Razor,” for example, and “hearsay” is rendered as “heresy”.

Aside from that, and one or two tricks for avoiding and reducing spam in your own personal mailbox, I came away with a mental image of Spammer-X as a petty psychopath. He coldly sets out which spam topics generate the greatest return to the spammer:

…I have broken into and stolen e-mail contacts from many self-help Web sites. Web sites designed to help people with gambling addictions are a great example. These people are prime targets for spam. If even one person signs up to a casino I promote, I stand to make serious money since I know they will gamble everything they have and undoubtedly lose it all… Preying on vulnerabilities ensures a highly effective return.

And he adopts a cool stance to justify himself to his friends:

I often go for walks with friends of mine, stopping off at every ATM on the way… By the end of the night I am carrying at least $10,000.00 in $20.00 bills. My friends… don’t really know where the money is coming from… When asked how I earned the money, I… even told a friend I was dealing drugs… I don’t want my friends to know that I am the one that sent them all that spam.

Spammer-X would rather have his friends believe him a criminal than a spammer. Perhaps he knows in his heart (despite all his sophistry to the contrary) that there is very little difference.

Inside the Spam Cartel is available—but decided overpriced—for Kindle. Obviously, Spammer-X has learned another way to fleece the online public. I can't recommend the book, unless you can borrow it for free. Try the local library.

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