- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The battle against spam is turning into an all-out war.

Organizations involved in the fight against unwanted e-mail have been under a barrage of cyber-attacks from spammers in recent weeks, and some say the attacks have become too powerful and malicious to stop.

At least four groups in the past month shut down or slowed operations after being hit with thousands of “denial of service” attacks that crashed Web sites and, in some cases, sent massive quantities of e-mail to customers.

Most of the victims were operators of “blocklists,” which published the locations of spammers on the Internet.

They say the attacks are part of an escalating war between spammers, who send out billions of unsolicited e-mail messages each day, and the fragmented group of nonprofit organizations trying to stop them.

Among the hardest hit was Ron Guilmette, a Roseville, Calif., software designer who operated Monkeys.com, a “blocklist” service used by Internet service providers and businesses to filter out unwanted e-mail.

Between Aug. 19 and Aug. 29, Mr. Guilmette’s Web site was knocked off line repeatedly, and e-mail users received millions of spam messages that were falsely marked as coming from Monkeys.com.

“It was impossible to continue distributing the list. … I no longer had Internet connectivity,” Mr. Guilmette said. “It’s becoming much harder to continue offering free … services to the antispam community.” He shut down the blocklist permanently Sept. 22.

Australian e-mail service provider Bluebottle said last week it would have to turn off spam-fighting tools for its customers as a result of nonstop attacks by spammers. Compu.net Enterprises, a small Tennessee Internet service provider, said at the end of September it would shut down a service that lists the Internet protocol addresses of suspected spammers.

“There’s generally been a trend of heightened warfare between spammers and antispammers,” said Ray Everett-Church, chief counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. “It’s a continuously escalating arms race.”

Smaller, nonprofit antispam groups appear to be more vulnerable to attacks, mainly because they lack the financial resources to recover. Also, analysts said, some individuals might have been targeted because they were overzealous in their spam-fighting techniques, even angering fellow antispam advocates.

Mr. Guilmette, for instance, had alienated many allies in the antispam community with some abrasive comments. He said he was having trouble finding anyone to donate bandwidth that would allow him to place his blocklist back online.

Antispam advocates say the attacks underscore a growing connection between spammers and people who create destructive “viruses” and “worms.”

In these recent cases, spammers flooded Web sites in a similar fashion to the Sobig.F virus and others that plagued the Internet earlier this year. Technology analysts said there is strong evidence that spammers have teamed with virus writers to create holes in the Internet that allow spammers to send e-mail anonymously.

Although some analysts have decried the attacks as proof that spammers are growing more powerful, others point to them as evidence that spamming alone is no longer profitable enough. Filters, blocklists and other solutions in many cases have worked to prevent spam from entering in-boxes.

“Certainly, some of it is self-preservation, because it’s getting harder to spam,” said Laura Atkins, president of the SpamCon Foundation, a nonprofit antispam group.

Victims of spammer attacks said they were forced to shut down operations partly because law enforcement agencies did not respond. Most said the FBI and local agencies said they could seek prosecution only if the victim could prove a monetary loss of at least $5,000.

Proving financial loss was nearly impossible, victims said, because they run blocklists and other services voluntarily.

A spokesman for the FBI Cyber Division could not be reached for comment.

Many foes of spam say they will continue to fight unwanted e-mail, even if spammers become increasingly destructive.

Others were less optimistic that spam could be stopped. In a message to antispam colleagues on the day he shut down Monkeys.com, Mr. Guilmette said the attacks against his blocklist have led him to all but abandon the fight against spam.

“I hope that you will accept my apologies for letting you down,” he said.

“I confess that I underestimated the enemy rather badly…. I had no idea they could or would stoop this low, or that they would engage in quite this level of criminality.”

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