When Your Child’s Email Gets Hacked: My Look Into the Evil World of Spamming


I guess our first clue should have been when our preteen daughter, Emmie, couldn’t get into her email account a few weeks ago– she said it wouldn’t let her in, and she figured that maybe she’d forgotten her password, even though it was the only one she ever used, and it always popped up automatically from our home computer, anyway.  (Her email service says that’s a sign that the account might have been compromised.)  But unknowing doofus parents that we are, we just went on about our business as she answered the security questions and reset her password (she chose to “change” it to the same one as before).  Then yesterday morning, suspicious emails, with blank “subject” lines, started arriving from her address, several every few minutes, into my inbox and into everyone else’s in her address book.  They contained a link to a “pharmaceutical” website, a site that contained descriptions of just how their products would help male enhancement and performance.  It’s bad enough we all get bombarded with those ads on radio and TV, but now kids are being specifically targeted for that message as well?

“How do they know it’s a kid’s account?” Andy asked me after I phoned him. I was mad and needed to vent. I think they have a pretty good idea, I told him.  I’d found out, after doing a bit of Internet research, that spammers often get into email accounts because many people use the same password for all their online accounts, and the spammers simply find a not-so-secure website where the person has entered their email address and password, and they figure that same password is good for that person’s private email inbox. Which had been the case with Emmie, and probably so for a lot of kids.  Which means that, based on her Internet presence, that spammers troll everywhere, even kid websites like Neopets, Webkinz, American Girl…and that’s just sick. 

You are probably wondering, as I did, why pharmaceutical spammers would want kids to find their website, since it’s doubtful a kid is going to beg Santa Claus for some Viagra. Why waste time going after kids? Well, it’s simply a matter of clicks– the more clicks their site gets, the more that spammers make money. (Even exiting out of an unwanted spam pop-up earns those spam vermin some cashl!)  And unsuspecting kids might just be the “perfect” audience to give their site a lot of traffic, especially those kids who get the giggles every time they see the word “penis” in print.  A 2008 study done by the University of California-Berkeley and UCSD showed that even at an average rate of only one response for every 12.5 million spam emails sent, spammers turn a nice profit.  For one large spam network, it was to the tune of $7,000 per day, over $2 million per year. 

Emmie was definitely upset when she arrived home, bleary-eyed and tired after a sleepover, to find out what had happened.  By that time, I’d emailed everyone to whom the messages had been sent to tell them not to open up any emails from her. Her mouth dropped open in horror every time she realized just who might have received the spam, as she remembered who was on her address list– “My teachers from last year?” she asked.  Yes.  “All my camp friends?” Yes.  “The gymnastics coaches?” Yes. And yes to the email addresses of music instructors, relatives, even some of her friends’ parents.  The more upset she got, the more upset I got on the inside, and the more I wanted to go after the jerks who did this.  I called up Andy again.  “I want to find out who did this, and I want to press charges!” I told him.  After signing in to Emmie’s email account, he found a list of the origins of the last 10 sign-ons, and called me back. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to send that lawyer to Azerbaijan, Turkey, Chile, and Poland,” he said.  Because someone, or someone’s computer, from each of those countries had gotten into her account that morning– one at 5:12 a.m., the next at 8 a.m., another at 9:43 a.m. and the latest at 12:06 p.m.  Creepy, isn’t it? He felt it was futile to do anything except make her account more secure (email providers usually offer how-to’s), but he underestimates the lengths moms will go to when someone messes with their children.

A few Google searches and a little more reading and I came upon a website called The Spamhaus Project. The Spamhaus Project is an international nonprofit organization whose mission includes tracking the Internet’s spam operations and sources, working with law enforcement agencies to identify and pursue spam gangs worldwide, and to lobby governments for effective anti-spam legislation. It maintains a Register Of Known Spam Operations, or ROKSO, collecting information on “known professional spam operations that have been terminated by a minimum of 3 Internet Service Providers for spam offenses.”  The list is long, but represents a group of about 100 “spam gangs” that put out 80% of the spam we receive at any given time, most operating illegally and moving from ISP to ISP. It didn’t take long to find the name of the website to which all of Emmie’s spam emails had directed her friends–though each email housed a different address/link, they all led to one place:  “A long time running pharmacy spam operation. They send tens of millions of spams per day using botnet techniques. Probably based in Eastern Europe, Ukraine/Russia. Host spammed web sites on botnets and on bulletproof Chinese web hosting”.  Just as I was thinking it really was futile to bring charges against someone sitting several continents away, I decided to click on a ROKSO feature labeled “Contact info.” And there in black and white were the street addresses of the spam pharmaceutical company’s three “known” offices: one in Canada; their “warehouse” in India; and their “U.S. branch office”, located in… Austin, TEXAS. Yee-HAH! (Now I may not be proud of some things in Texas, but prosecuting criminals is something Texas does really well, so at that moment, I couldn’t have been happier to live where I do– even in this nonstop triple-digit heat…)  I double-checked Spamhaus’ address information with what was listed at the pharma website and it matched. 

SO- to make a long story shorter, I checked with the Texas Attorney General’s website (yes, spamming is illegal in our state, not to mention selling prescription drugs on the black market), and I called their Austin office, and was encouraged to file a consumer complaint– it’s easy to do and the form is online (see below for links). Maybe if enough angry parents complain, spammers will be put out of business, or at least put out of state. (Various state attorney generals have had success in prosecuting spammers.) The TAG’s office also encouraged me to phone the Austin police non-emergency line, who gave me a national link where people in any state can file a complaint against spammers (see below). I’m also thinking about a call or email to the Austin Better Business Bureau, and an email to the FTC (they take spam complaints at 
www.ftc.gov).

A ridiculous waste of time, you may be thinking? Just get used to spam? Ah, but think again. Where one crime is being committed, usually others are, or will be, as well. Not only do website spammers often branch out into identity theft and fraud schemes (like bilking senior citizens), they’ve been known to be pedophiles and child pornographers as well. As responsible
citizens, we’ve got to treat any Internet crime just like we’d treat a hit-and-run or an assault, and report it, especially when it happens to our children.
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Texas Attorney General consumer complaint form:
https://www.oag.state.tx.us/forms/cpd/form.php

Internet Crime Complaint Center (run by FBI, National White Collar Crimes Center) http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

The Register Of Known Spam Operations: http://www.spamhaus.org/rokso/index.lasso

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