News 4 Investigates: Daily Briefing

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News 4 Investigates: Spam Kings

by ccheatham

KMOV.com

Posted on June 18, 2009 at 1:37 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 3:05 PM


amir shah on linked.jpg

th_A01_shahMUG_0430.jpg

Amir and Osmaan Shah were indicted recently for allegedly masterminding a multi-million dollar SPAM operation based out of Missouri. Amir and Osmaan are both former University of Missouri students. Amir (on the left) lived in St. Louis, his brother Osmaan (on the right) lived in Columbia.

According to the indictment, Amir was the "idea guy." He served as "the face of the company to negotiate contracts" for all aspects of the business. Osmaan was the "computer guy," who "served as the equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer for the conspiracy."

Federal prosecutors charge that the operation illegally "harvested" e-mail addresses from the Mizzou system, eventually accumulating more than 37 million e-mail addresses for their SPAM business. Prosecutors say the Shahs targeted college students with ads offering teeth whitener and other products. The indictment says the Shah's bombed more than 2,000 colleges and universities with SPAM.

Here's a copy of the indictment. 0430_Shah_Indictment.pdf

On page 18 of the indictment you can read transcripts of the conversations between the brothers as they allegedly bombed colleges with SPAM. The indictment says the brothers used the profits to buy a house in south St. Louis, a loft on Washington Avenue and expensive cars, including a Lexus sedan.

According to the indictment, the brothers used servers in China to distribute the SPAM at a rate of up to one million e-mails an hour.

David Maestas, a computer security expert at TechGuard, a Chesterfield-based firm specializing in creating systems that protect government and corporate information, told us it's extremely difficult tracking down SPAMMERS. Maestas says most SPAM comes from webservers in foreign countries like China where the U.S. doesn't have a cooperative law enforcement agreement. That gives SPAMMERS an extra layer of protection. In many cases, the foreign servers send e-mails that entice you to open them. When you open the e-mail it attaches software to your computer.

maestas at computer.jpg

"There will actually be software on that PC that will make a connection outbound through your internet connection to a server possibly in China," Maestas told me. The PC would then "ask that server what do you want me to do?"

Maestas says that server can send commands to computers telling them to send personal information like e-mail addresses to the central server. Then, the SPAMMERS have the ammunition to launch a massive campaign.

"There have been studies that have shown that 20-30 percent or more of the bandwith on the internet backbone is consumed with just junk mail and traffic," Maestas said.

Maestas told me that SPAM slows down the internet and makes it more expensive for the rest of us.

Even though the Shahs face years in prison, many experts say their indictment will likely have little, if any, impact on SPAM.

The Shahs have pleaded not guilty. Federal prosecutors argued the Shahs should be held in detention, partly because of their connections to Pakistan. Here are the documents: shah support of pretrial detention.pdf

During a scheduling hearing three weeks ago, the prosecution revealed in court records that it has an "incriminating statement of defendant,"there are informants" in the case and "electronic surveillence" was used to collect evidence against the Shahs. Here's the record of the hearing: shah scheduling and trial order.pdf

The Shah brothers were released on a $50,000 dollar unsecured bond paid by their parents. One of the conditions of their release is that they restrict their use of computers and the internet.

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