Symantec spotted a wide spam operation on Twitter

Pierluigi Paganini March 30, 2015

Security experts at Symantec security firm have uncovered a persistent diet spam operation on Twitter that presents interesting aspects.

In July 2014, experts at Symantec have uncovered a spam campaign offering the Green Coffee Bean Extract, a diet supplement, a few months later the experts discovered that the same operators behind campaign is continuing its activities exploiting some 750,000 fake Twitter accounts to distribute messages like this one:
tweet spam
One of the most interesting aspect of this campaign is that of the 750,000 Twitter accounts, nearly 100 were fake accounts impersonating entities with a great audience, like news organizations (i.e. CNN, ABC), popular reality TV stars and other outlets like TMZ and MTV News. These accounts, also called “mockingbird” accounts, were used to spread the spam messages for first.
tweet spam campaign account distribution
The operation appears welll structured, the spammers used nearly 40,000 accounts, called “parrots,” who would retweet and favorite those initial messages, the remaining 700,000 accounts were used to impersonate new users, who never tweet, but are used to inflate follower counts of Parrot accounts, these account were identified as “egg” accounts.
“Instead of using compromised accounts to tweet spam links, it was using accounts that impersonated brands and celebrities.”
 tweet spam campaign roles
The spam schema is very simple, efficient and resilient to Twitter account take over, when a Parrot or a Mockingbird account were suspended by Twitter, the operators would simply convert another Parrot account to Mockingbird, and Eggs to Parrots. 
Another precaution taken by spammers as a preservation tactic is that Mockingbird accounts delete their spam tweets after a set amount of time.
tweet spam campaign scheme

“One of the most interesting aspects of this spam operation is the preservation and recovery tactics employed by its operator in order to avoid anti-spam measures. ” explained noted Symantec’s Satnam Narang. 

Symantec is investigating on the Twitter spam campaign sharing the results of its analysis Bitly, Google, and GoDaddy, in order to identify the operators and take down their infrastructure. Fortunately, the spammers committed a few errors that advantaged the investigations.

“Despite the use of Mockingbird, Parrot, and Egg accounts, as well as interesting tactics to preserve and recover accounts, the author failed to cover his tracks in certain areas,” continues Narang. “Each of the domains was registered without private registration, revealing this individual’s real name and address. The Bitly accounts used for creating short URLs were associated with this individual’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Lastly, he converted one of his Parrot accounts into a personal account, where he instructed his Parrot accounts to retweet and favorite some of his own tweets. We were able to link this spam operation to a single individual by combining these missteps.”

Unfortunately, the distracted and superficial behavior of many users benefits this type of spam campaigns, users must be careful about the identity of the profile who they follow on Twitter. Before retweeting any message be sure of the content you are sharing and its source. Don’t forget also that to verify the authenticity of a Twitter account you can rely on blue verified badge that Twitter platform uses.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Twitter,  spam)

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