It was early October 2011, and I was on the treadmill checking email from my phone when I noticed several hundred new messages had arrived since I last looked at my Gmail inbox just 20 minutes earlier. I didn’t know it at the time, but my account was being used to beta test a private service now offered openly in the criminal underground that can be hired to create highly disruptive floods of junk email, text messages and phone calls.
Many businesses request some kind of confirmation from their bank whenever high-dollar transfers are initiated. These confirmations may be sent via text message or email, or the business may ask their bank to call them to verify requested transfers. The attack that hit my inbox was part of an offering that crooks can hire to flood each medium of communication, thereby preventing a targeted business from ever receiving or finding alerts from their bank.
Shortly after the email barrage began, I fired off a note to Google‘s public relations folks, asking for advice and assistance. Thankfully, my phone line was not a subject of the attack, and I was able to communicate what I was seeing to Google’s team. They worked to fight the attack for the better part of that day, during which time my inbox received tens of thousands of emails, burying hundreds of legitimate emails in page after page of junk messages (in the screen shot above, the note to Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow is at the top of the junk message pile).
What was most surprising about these messages was that many of them contained fairly spammy subject lines that should have been easily caught by Google’s junk mail filters. Each junk message contained nothing but pages full of garbled letters and numbers; the text of each missive resembled an encrypted message.
Google’s engineers managed to block a majority of the junk messages after about six hours, but the company declined to talk about what caused the attack to succeed. It took many more hours to sift through the junk messages to fish out the ones I wanted.
“This isn’t about a hole in Gmail or an exploit — it’s more a matter of spam dynamics and what may be able to get through more easily under certain circumstances,” Nancarrow said. “As a result, we can’t provide specifics that could aid spammers in trying new campaigns.”