How Spammers Get Paid

As an email administrator I’m constantly asked by email users “I don’t understand why people send spam. How do they make money selling watches or viagra , if they have no reply email address? I only see web site link”.  Therein lies the answer, which we can continue to educate our email users.  In his article “How Viagra spam works” Stuart Brown provides great insight with details on exactly how the underground market of spamming works. All it takes is a few emails for spammers to get paid from millions of spam emails sent out daily.

Stuart starts off by explaining that even with the best Bayesian filters, blacklists and other filtering techniques, most of us are still plagued with an endless stream of invitations for all sorts of weird and wonderful products and services. One of the most common forms of spam is advertising for pharmaceutical products – and perhaps the most notorious form is for the ‘men’s health’ variety- notably Sildenafil citrate, more commonly known as Viagra. But how do spammers make their money?

how viagra spam earns money for spammers

In the US, as Stuart Brown explains, Viagra is available via prescription only, and will cost around $10 per pill. Pfizer still control the production and distribution of Viagra in the US, so in essence they can control this price to maximize profit and to recoup the cost of development.  However, in certain countries (for instance, India and Mexico), the patent on Sildenafil citrate has expired – meaning that it can be manufactured in these countries very cheaply indeed. Pharmacy websites have sprung up to act as a channel for distribution, likely operating outside of the USA, and charging in the region of $2 per pill – and at nearly a fifth of the cost to the US consumer, this mode of distribution is a very popular way to buy Viagra online.

Dancho Danchev’s article “Inside an affiliate spam program for pharmaceuticals” explains how legitimate affiliation marketing programs pay spammers for directing traffic to legitimate pharmacy websites.  Neither the affiliation companies nor the pharmacy companies may be doing anything illegal.  The spammers who act as the middle broker are performing illegal actions between both legal entities.

Dancho makes the case that despite many affiliate programs claiming that they don’t endorse spam and traffic coming from botnets on their web page, some of the affiliate program managers have the opposite attitude across multiple forums. They simply don’t mind and look the other way.

Dancho further explains that once a person has been approved as an affiliate and receives their unique tracking code, they’re free to choose the pharmaceutical products, pick up the creative and choose from the many templates for online pharmacy shops, then start driving traffic to them. Some affiliate programs add value to the registration process by introducing ratio calculators in order to make it easier for new participants to calculate their earnings based on the selling price that they choose for the item. Pretty simple, and that’s the problem, since anything required for the participant to drive traffic and monetize it, can be, and is, easily outsourced.

Written by Jesmond Darmanin


  1. Phil · November 24, 2008

    Yes, but even with Bayesian filters like SpamBully and spam bayes you don’t seem to get hit as hard in the inbox. I have found them to be pretty smart!

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