The bounceback e-mail messages come in at a trickle, maybe one or two every hour. The subject lines are disquieting: "Cyails, Vygara nad Levytar," "UNSOLICITED BULK EMAIL, apparently from you."
You eye your computer screen; you're nervous. What's going on ? Have you been hacked? Are you some kind of zombie botnet spammer?
Nope, you're just getting a little backscatter -- bounceback messages from legitimate e-mail servers that have been fooled by the spammers.
Spammers like to put fake information in their e-mail messages in order to sneak them past e-mail filters. Because e-mail filters now just delete messages that come from nonexistent domains, the spammers like to make their messages look like they come from real e-mail addresses. That means, if your e-mail address has been published on the Web somewhere, you're a prime candidate for backscattering.
The spammer finds your address, or sometimes even guesses it, and then puts it in the "from" line of his messages, sending them out to hundreds of thousands of recipients. When the spam gets sent to an address that is no longer active, it can sometimes be bounced back ... to you.
Although Sophos estimates that backscatter makes up just two percent or three percent of all spam, antispam vendors say these messages are on the rise lately.
Users often think that the backscatter may be a sign that their computer has been hacked and is sending out spam messages, said Brad Bartman, a global support manager with Text 100, a public relations consultancy. "They look at it and they're like, 'Whoa, is my PC infected with a virus?'" he said.
Backscatter rarely hits more than one or two employees at the same time, so it isn't particularly disruptive. But it does worry users, he said. "It's mostly a psychological thing."
With their e-mail addresses widely circulated on press releases, Text 100's PR specialists are the ideal candidates for backscatter.
Because backscatter comes from legitimate mail servers, it can cause special problems. In fact, some security researchers believe that the spammers have been intentionally sending messages that will be bounced back as a way to sneak around spam filters. That's because some mail servers bounce back the original message as part of their notice.
Dan Wallach, like Text 100's Bartman, was hit with a flood of backscatter messages earlier this week. Wallach, an associate professor with Rice University's Department of Computer Science, said that many of the messages he received contained links to suspicious executable files hosted on different Web sites.
"I'll bet that some spammer is rationally thinking 'error messages! Maybe I can get my message through via error messages!'" Wallach said in an e-mail interview. "They don't need many responses before this sort of tactic could be considered to be a success."