Cisco: Spammers aren't making money like they used to

Mass attacks including spam will generate $300 million this year, Cisco estimates, down from $1 billion in 2010

Worms, denial-of-service attacks and spam just aren't paying out like they used to. That's what Cisco Systems found when it took a close look at the illegal marketplace for scammers and spammers.

Cisco studied the underground cybercrime marketplace and security researcher Pat Peterson believes that last year was a turning point in the war against mass scams. "The tide turned tremendously at the end of 2010," he said, speaking at a press event for reporters and analysts at Cisco's San Bruno, California, campus Thursday. "We continue to expect criminal profits from these mass attacks to drop."

Cisco estimates that mass attackers will rake in about US$300 million in profits this year. That's a big drop from the $1 billion or so that Cisco thinks the criminals made each year in 2009 and 2010.

So why are things getting so rough for the scammers? Peterson gives two reasons: Law enforcement has stepped up efforts against scammers, and "a lot of the botnets have been shut down, taken down, disrupted and hassled," he said.

In the past year alone, international takedown efforts have neutralized or removed some of the world's worst botnets: Conficker, Waledac, Pushdo and, most recently, Rustock have all been hit.

Spam volumes have plummeted accordingly: from about 300 billion messages per day a year ago to closer to 40 billion per day over the past few months. Some are saying that it's just becoming too hard to make money as a spammer these days.

"This is something that we don't see very often, which is a true phenomenal success," Peterson said.

That doesn't mean that online crooks are going away though. Peterson believes that targeted attacks such as spearphishing are on the rise.

The total number of targeted attacks has tripled over the past year and they are now costing organizations about $1.3 billion each year, according to Cisco.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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