Spam and the pharmaceutical black market: new study

5 September 2012

Spam is an ideal vehicle for all kinds of scams, frauds and identity or banking information theft. The main thrust of these messages is based on deception, abuse of trust and fictitious promises. These manifestations are relatively well known, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand the exact nature of spam.

Another category exists that is both tangential to the group of spam that is cybercriminal in nature, and to the group of spam that is marketing abuse: promotional spam for counterfeit products. This phenomenon is particularly present in the pharmaceutical industry due to black markets and the proliferation of online offers and affiliate programs that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in gross revenue. The viagra molecule being the undisputed champion of this economy.

At its 21ème At a security symposium, the USENIX Association (which focuses on complex computer systems) heard from American academics who have closely observed the ins and outs of the black market pharmaceutical economy. The trade of unauthorized molecules or the online sale of counterfeit products relies mainly on an underground industry of prospecting and advertising that uses spam, "black hats" (hackers who exercise their skills by carrying out illegal actions - in this case the optimization of the referencing of sites that host offers of counterfeit products at various levels) or even forums specialized in this type of abuse.

The American researchers from George Mason University, Berkeley, and California University, expose in their study (which you will find in its original version at the bottom of the page) the mechanisms underlying this parallel economy. The behaviors of the customers, mainly in the United States and Western Europe, the prospection and affiliation programs (via the systematic use of spam and botnets to send them), the sponsors, the payment and financialization processes... are all presented in this study made possible by the observation over a period of 5 years of the economic circuits around 3 major affiliation programs which are GlavMed (73 million profit between January 2007 and April 2010 with nearly 600,000 customers), SpamIt (85 million profit over the same period with about 700,000 orders placed) and RX-Promotion (12 million profit between October 2009 and December 2010).

The study concludes that there are some weaknesses in this underground economy: the monetization of the activity necessarily depends on payment service providers, of which there are few. In addition, net revenues remain modest, due to the costs of affiliate programs (even if they generate a very large number of sales).

You can find a presentation of the filmed study on this page: https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity12/pharmaleaks-understanding-business-online-pharmaceutical-affiliate

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