Although many reports suggest that email spam is reducing, email spam and botnet infection is still a major issue for most U.S organizations and individuals – with criminal practices netting cybercriminal gangs billions of dollars every year.

Determining the infection levels and the volume of spam being sent was one of the missions of the Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (M3AAWG). M3AAWG, is a global organization tasked with promoting cybersecurity best practices and fighting organized internet crime. M3AAWG was formed a decade ago by a number of leading internet service providers, with the goal of improving collaboration and sharing knowledge to make it harder for criminals to spam account users. By reducing the impact of email spam on individuals and organizations, ISPs would be able to better protect users, IPS’s email platforms and their reputations.

Quantifying Email Spam and Botnet Infection a Complex Task

It was discovered that quantifying email spam and botnet infection levels was a complex task; one that was only possible with collaboration between internet service providers. As a result of this collaboration, the organization has produced reports on the global state of email spam and botnet infection. Its latest analysis suggests that approximately 1% of computer users are part of a botnet network.

The data gathered by M3AAWG involved assessing 43 million email subscribers in the United States and Europe.,The data analysis showed that IPS’s typically block between 94% and 99% of spam emails. The company’s report suggests that on the whole, IPS’s do a good job of blocking email spam.

The figures look impressive but, considering the huge scale of email spam, billions of spam emails are still getting through to users, with financial organizations and other companies now being regularly targeted with spam and malware.

Email spammers are well funded, and criminal organizations are using email spam as a means of obtaining tens of billions of dollars each year from internet fraud. Spam emails are sent to phish for sensitive information, such as bank account information, credit card details and other highly sensitive data including Social Security numbers. Accounts can be emptied, credit cards maxed out and data used to commit identity theft; racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debts in the victims’ names.

In years gone by, email spammers concentrated on sending emails randomly to accounts with offers of cheap Rolexes, Viagra, potential wives and the opportunity to claim an inheritance from a long lost relative. Today, spammers have realized there are far greater rewards to be had, and emails are now sent containing links to malware-infected websites which can be used to compromise users’ PCs, laptops and Smartphones, gaining access to highly sensitive data or locking devices and demanding ransoms.

Some emails may still be sent manually, but the majority are sent using botnets. Networks of infected machines that can be used to send huge volumes of spam emails, spread malware or organize increasingly complex attacks on individuals and organizations. The botnets are available for hire, with criminals able to rent botnet time and use them for any number of reasons.

Many of the attacks are now coming from countries where there is little regulation and a very low risk of the perpetrators being caught. Countries in Africa, as well as Indonesia and the Ukraine house huge volumes of cybercriminals. They have even set up call centers to deal with the huge volume of enquiries from criminals seeking botnet time to orchestrate phishing and spamming campaigns. Tackling the problem at the source is difficult, with corruption rife in the countries where the perpetrators reside.

However, it is possible to reduce spam level, and the risk of employees falling for a scam or downloading malware by installing a robust email spam filter, reducing the potential for spam emails and phishing campaigns getting through to individual accounts.  According to Verizon, 23% of users open phishing emails and 11% open attachments and click on links. Stopping the emails from reaching users is therefore one of the best methods of defense against attacks.