Understanding Cross-Channel Abuse with SMS-Spam Support Infrastructure Attribution

Bharat Srinivasan, Payas Gupta, Manos Antonakakis and Mustaque Ahamad
21st European Symposium on Research in Computer Security (ESORICS), 2016

Recent convergence of telephony with the Internet offers malicious actors the ability to craft cross-channel attacks that leverage both telephony and Internet resources. Bulk messaging services can be used to send unsolicited SMS messages to phone numbers. While the long-term properties of email spam tactics have been extensively studied, such behavior for SMS spam is not well understood. In this paper, we discuss a novel SMS abuse attribution system called CHURN. The proposed system is able to collect data about large SMS abuse campaigns and analyze their passive DNS records and supporting website properties. We used CHURN to systematically conduct attribution around the domain names and IP addresses used in such SMS spam operations over a five year time period. Using CHURN, we were able to make the following observations about SMS spam campaigns: (1) only 1% of SMS abuse domains ever appeared in public domain blacklists and more than 94% of the blacklisted domain names did not appear in such public blacklists for several weeks or even months after they were first reported in abuse complaints, (2) more than 40% of the SMS spam domains were active for over 100 days, and (3) the infrastructure that supports the abuse is surprisingly stable. That is, the same SMS spam domain names were used for several weeks and the IP infrastructure that supports these campaigns can be identified in a few networks and a small number of IPs, for several months of abusive activities. Through this study, we aim to increase the situational awareness around SMS spam abuse, by studying this phenomenon over a period of five years.