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Spammers exploit social networking sites

Users of social networking sites may be irritated to find that an increasing number of invitations to be a friend or contact turn out to be ads.

Spammers are turning their attention to social networking sites to hawk their products, according to Cloudmark, a messaging security company. As email antispam technology has improved, spammers have branched out to other areas, said Adam O’Donnell, director of emerging technology at Cloudmark. “The social networking side provided a fertile ground for spammers,” he said.

Junk emailers are using multiple messaging vectors available on social networking sites, including direct messaging to friends, bulletin board posts and profiles, O’Donnell said. For example, a spammer will create a profile, which includes a link to a porn or dating site, then invites a bunch of people to be their friend or contact.

In a recent six-month period, Cloudmark tracked a 300 percent increase in spam on a large social networking site that it works with. Also, at several major social networking sites, about one-third of new accounts created are fraudulent, designed for spam and other attacks, the company said.

On Monday, Cloudmark released what it said was the only commercial product to combat spam, phishing and other attacks on social networks. Cloudmark Authority for Social Networking Providers, which extends Cloudmark’s carrier-grade platform, is designed to protect all communication channels on a social networking site. The company said the technology has been deployed at one of the largest social networking sites, but wouldn’t identify it.

There’s no spam filter that end users can deploy to protect themselves on social networking sites, O’Donnell said. Some sites like LinkedIn are used as business tools, he said, adding, “If it came to a point on social networks where 80 percent of inbound content is spam, they’re no longer a useful business tool.”

Jamz Yaneza, a senior threat researcher at Trend Micro who uses several social networking sites including Facebook and MySpace, said he’s noticed an increase in friend invitations that push products. There have been a lot of exploits against social networking sites, he said, citing last year’s hack of singer Alicia Keys’ MySpace page.

Paul Ferguson, also a threat researcher at Trend Micro, said the growth of users on social networking sites “far outpaces their ability to keep the platform secure.” He added, “The back-end mechanisms that allow the interactivity also allow people to use them for malicious purposes.”

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