Cynical security experts often dismiss anti-spam activists as grumpy idealists with a singular, Sisyphean obsession. The cynics question if it’s really worth all that time and effort to complain to ISPs and hosting providers about customers that are sending junk email? Well, according to at least one underground service designed for spammers seeking to avoid anti-spam activists, the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Over the past 18 months, I’ve published a series of posts that provide clues about the possible real-life identities of the men responsible for building some of the largest and most disruptive spam botnets on the planet. I’ve since done a bit more digging into the backgrounds of the individuals thought to be responsible for the Rustock and Waledac spam botnets, which has produced some additional fascinating and corroborating details about these two characters.
Experts from across the security industry collaborated this week to quarantine more than 110,000 Microsoft Windows PCs that were infected with the Khelios worm, a contagion that forces infected PCs to blast out junk email advertising rogue Internet pharmacies.
Most botnets are relatively fragile: If security experts or law enforcement agencies seize the Internet servers used to control the zombie network, the crime machine eventually implodes. But Khelios (a.k.a. “Kelihos”) was built to withstand such attacks, employing a peer-to-peer structure not unlike that used by popular music and file-sharing sites to avoid takedown by the music and entertainment industry.
Microsoft on Monday named a Russian man as allegedly the guy responsible for running the Kelihos botnet, a spam engine that infected an estimated 40,000 PCs. But closely held data seized from the world’s largest spam affiliate program suggests that the driving force behind Kelihos is a different individual who is still coordinating spam campaigns for hire.
Kelihos shares a great deal of code with the infamous Waledac botnet, a far more pervasive threat that infected hundreds of thousands of computers and pumped out tens of billions of junk emails promoting shady online pharmacies. Despite the broad base of shared code between the two malware families, Microsoft classifies them as fundamentally different threats. The company used clever legal techniques to seize control over and shutter both botnets, sucker punching Waledac in early 2010 and taking out Kelihos last fall.
On Monday, Microsoft filed papers with a Virginia court stating that Kelihos was run by Andrey N. Sabelnikov, a St. Petersburg man who once worked at Russian antivirus and security firm Agnitum. But according to the researcher who shared that intelligence with Microsoft — and confidentially with Krebs On Security weeks prior to Microsoft’s announcement — Sabelnikov is likely only a developer of Kelihos. Rather, the researcher argues, the true coordinator of both Kelihos and Waledac is another Russian man who is well known to anti-spam activists.
The “Storm Worm,” a prolific strain of malicious software once responsible for blasting out 20 percent of spam sent worldwide before it died an ignominious death roughly 18 months ago, was resurrected this week. Researchers familiar with former strains of the worm say telltale fingerprints in the new version strongly suggest that it was either rebuilt by its original creators or was sold to another criminal malware gang.