Another example of smart spam? Those strange emails that come from friends, telling you to visit an online pharmacy or watch a video. Criminals break into Hotmail or Gmail accounts and send messages to every one of the victims' mail contacts before anyone realizes. This type of spam -- sent between two people who know each other -- is much more likely to evade filters.
Scammers have taken this game to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter too. Sometimes they send @messages to their targets. Other times they hack into an account and use it to send out their messages. That's what happened last week to "Shaun of the Dead" actor Simon Pegg's Twitter account. It was used to spam out a Trojan horse program disguised as a screensaver to his 1.2 million followers.
The hunt for new ways to pump out unwanted messages is a natural evolution. Old fashioned e-mail isn't the ubiquitous connector it once was. According to the Pew Center for Internet Life, young Internet users shy away from e-mail, preferring texts and instant messages. Pew's December 2010 Generations report on Internet usage found that 70-year-olds are now more likely to use email than teenagers.
In an effort to reach these younger Internet users, scammers have turned to search engines too, poisoning search results by gaming Google or Bing.
"People are spending more time on Web properties than they were four or five years ago," said Paul Judge, chief research officer at security appliance vendor Barracuda Networks. The result is that search engine results are becoming cluttered with blatantly commercial or useless pages, in much the same way that email boxes were flooded when spam first spiked about a decade ago.
Scammers know how search engines work, and they work hard to get their dodgy pages to pop up near the top of search results. They bombard online forums with links to their pages or hack into websites to add links -- all in an effort to boost their Google ranking. For less than $100, crooked marketers can automatically add 10,000 links --typically from the comments section of blogs -- to whatever webpage they want. This can quickly push a webpage to the top of Google or Bing's results.
This doesn't only lead to bad Web-searching. Sometimes it means that people get hacked. In fact, the number of malicious Web pages that use search engine optimization tricks to lure visitors nearly doubled between June and December last year, Judge said.