Everyone dislikes doing boring and repetitive online tasks. This is why bots have evolved to take on this responsibility. However, this applies to sending spam as well, so it’s not unusual if you’ve ever come across or will encounter a spam bot.
Spammers often use these bots to send vast amounts of spam messages automatically. See? Even spammers find it boring to do it manually over and over again.
A spam bot is a simple tool, but it can be pesky and sometimes overwhelming. Wondering how a it creates trouble and what types of applications and websites are usually the most targeted? Keep reading to find out.
How do spam bots work?
Spam bots usually work in different ways, but all have the same goal – spreading spam and malware. A typical spam bot will be ‘fed’ with huge mailing lists or user data from various platforms compiled by email or web scrapers.
Then, the spam bot will begin sending large amounts of spam messages. They do so while disguised as legitimate users on email services, social media platforms, or other applications. They send misleading messages and make them look as if they were sent from real users.
The tactic is meant to trick people into clicking the links in the messages or taking specific actions. With this, spammers can get their hands on sensitive data such as account credentials and credit card information.
Creating a spam bot is sometimes so easy that many websites have implemented CAPTCHA challenges to separate bots from real users. It is not unusual for these bots to bypass these challenges. Once they dodged the security measures, bots can begin posting spam messages, leaving comments, and sending malware. They do this by following a script created by a spammer.
Websites and services such as social media platforms, forums, messaging apps, or email hosting providers are usually the main targets for spam bots. There are many reasons why spam bots are bothering us. The most common use cases for them are:
- Spreading malware;
- Operating scams;
- Sending spam comments;
- Posting inappropriate content;
- Sending backlinks to improve search engine rankings;
- Spreading unwanted ads.
What are the most common types of spam bots?
Depending on the website, application, or goals, spam bots can operate differently. When we talk about the common forms a spam bot can take, we have three main types: an email spam bot, a forum/comment spam bot, or social media spam bot.
Email spam bot
You sure must have received at least one email you sent straight into the ‘spam’ folder. That is because a spam bot operates in two steps:
1. Scrape the web for email addresses to create mailing lists: This is the first step most forms of spam bots take. In this discovery and harvesting phase, they scan websites for email addresses and look for online text that looks like an email format. The found addresses will then be added to a database. This is not the only method of getting hands on a mailing list. Spammers can, for example, also buy it or steal it from companies.
2. Send spam emails in bulk: The next step is to start sending emails to the mailing lists. There are two types of email spam:
- Non-malicious email spam – These are legitimate emails that are part of unwanted marketing. For example, you can receive a legitimate email about smartphone deals and consider it irrelevant spam.
- Malicious email spam – Spam bots often use fake accounts to send malicious emails to a target list. So, you could get an email about a tempting flash deal that contains a distrustful link. This process can be as simple as running a mail server and sending the email spam to the target list.
The malicious emails will spread malware to help spammers get the information they want. In most cases, the malware is designed to steal credentials and other sensitive information through various methods such as phishing.
A forum or comment spam bot floods forums, blogs, or other similar websites with comments. They might not always need to create fake accounts, as certain websites allow users to post anonymously or without an account.
But security-focused websites will not allow bots to run amok. They usually have CAPTCHA challenges or other methods to deal with spam bots. If spam is detected, it will be deleted by moderators or administrators. That’s not a big issue for spammers. They can continue creating dozens of accounts with ease and deploy the spam bots again.
Forum/comment spam bots can leave spam comments to promote specific services or malicious websites. They can also be used to promote a particular view on a particular topic or just for the sake of trolling.
Social media spam bot
Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have billions of users. This makes them the perfect hunting ground for social media spam bots. The same goes for messaging apps as well.
These websites and services can be infected by spam bots. In this way, they can act as regular chat bots and promote suspicious or fake offers and content. It can also promote websites that further expose users to scams or spam content.
Of course, spam bots don’t create fake profiles to do only that. They also steal personal data and credentials to breach real user accounts. This is usually done through credential stuffing, a cyber-attack that uses stolen credentials to hack into accounts.
How can you tell if a message is from a spam bot?
Even though they are designed to look and act like real users, spam bots are usually not that convincing. In most cases, it’s easy to spot a spam bot. You can try these quick ways to tell if a message is from a spam bot or not.
Excessive spelling and/or grammar mistakes
Most spam bots will send pre-programmed messages that are full of grammar and/or spelling mistakes. This is often to the point that you will have a hard time understanding the message.
It sounds too good to be true
That’s because it isn’t. Sometimes bots will send messages about incredible deals and flash sales for various products and services which otherwise are expensive.
Aggressive CTA (Call to Action) and directions to click on a link
Spam bots can be programmed to urge users to take a specific action as quickly as possible. Messages written in all caps or urgent indications to click on a link are the most common signs. It’s even more obvious if a social media profile is compromised and starts sending weird messages. For example, if you get an uncommon message from a friend demanding you to click on a link, it might be a spam bot taking over their profile.
Messages from unexpected or unknown sources
Emails, texts, and social media messages from unknown users are a red flag. In addition, the spam bot might breach the profile of someone you normally don’t talk to in an attempt to reach you.
Browsing a forum about something and you notice a comment about something completely unrelated is another red flag. Spam bots often won’t check if their comments are relevant to the thread. They are just programmed to automatically post them.
In a conversation, the replies stop making sense
Spam bots often follow a simple conversational script. If a user’s responses deviate from the expected responses, the spam bot will likely follow the script. In fact, it will follow the script even if the scripted replies no longer make sense in the conversation.
Are there ways to prevent spam bots?
Spam bots have become recurrent nowadays. They come in big numbers, but in most cases, this is a problem fairly easy to solve. Internet users can usually notice the difference between a real person and a spam bot.
Even though spam bots are not that sophisticated to perfectly mimic a real user, it’s still important to be aware of the risks. Businesses and organizations can use a couple of protective measures and specific tools to minimize the impact of spam bots.
Using CAPTCHA technology
CAPTCHA is one of the most popular methods a website can use to prevent spam bots. Websites can embed CAPTCHA into the contact form or throughout the registration process. Fortunately, this technology is constantly upgraded, so it can prevent most spam bots from abusing the users or the site’s data.
A popular example is Google’s reCAPTCHA. With it, you can prevent spam bots from doing things like filling in the contact forms, creating an account on your website, or commenting on posts or threads.
Although CAPTCHA is a good practice against spam bots, it might be less effective against more advanced bots.
Using spam bot protection software
Companies can use bot management software to protect their websites against spam bots. Such software can tell the difference between regular user activity and spam bot activities. Bot management software can help deal with recurring cyberattacks, such as:
- DoS (Denial of Service) and DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks
- Brute force password cracking
- Credential and credit card stuffing
- Spam content
- Email harvesting
- Click and ad frauds
Besides, such software can tell the difference between bad bods and legitimate bots. For example, this is very important for companies that use chat bots to conduct their business.
Blacklisting IP addresses
You can always go and deal with the root of the problem. In this case, you can get rid of the IP address the malicious activity is coming from. For this, blacklists are a super useful method you can add to your arsenal. These blacklists are records containing lists of IP addresses that are known sources of spam or suspicious activity.
In this way, detecting the IP the malicious activity is coming from and blacklisting it will prevent the spammer from reaching you. Even though it’s not a foolproof method, blacklisting malicious IPs is mostly an efficient way of dealing with spammy content.
You could also consider a less radical approach. For instance, you can set a limit on how many forms on your site can be submitted from the same IP address.
Use WHOIS privacy protection
WHOIS records provide information about the owner of a particular website and/or domain. Much of this information is publicly available, which makes it an easy target for email spam bots.
This is why domain owners often use WHOIS privacy protection. It hides the email of a domain from the public. In doing so, you can make sure your email addresses, phone number, and other sensitive data are not directly available in the public WHOIS records.
This will prevent spam bots from scraping email addresses and phone numbers. The result is that you are less likely to become a target for cyber attacks such as phishing.
Spam bots are a common, yet problematic thing. Dealing with them is just another day at the office. Most of the time it is easy to spot a spam bot and avoid falling into the trap. Yet, spam bots are becoming more and more advanced, which requires us to develop better solutions.
Thankfully, there are various measures companies can take to reduce the presence of such harmful programs. It is more a matter of diligence and thorough implementation of security measures. These will help protect websites and platforms against bad bots and spammers.