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SpamHaus ranks most-botted TLDs and registrars

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2018, Domain Registrars

Namecheap and Uniregistry have emerged as two of the most-abused domain name companies, using statistics on botnet command and control centers released by SpamHaus this week.

SpamHaus data shows that over a quarter of all botnet C&Cs found during the year were using NameCheap as their registrar.

It also shows that almost 1% of domains registered in Uniregistry’s .click are used as C&Cs.

The spam-fighting outfit said it discovered “almost 50,000” domains in 2017 that were registered for the purpose of controlling botnets.

Comparable data for 2016 was not published a year ago, but if you go back a few years, SpamHaus reported that there were just 3,793 such domains in 2014.

Neither number includes compromised domains or free subdomains.

The TLD with the most botnet abuse was of course .com, with 14,218 domains used as C&C servers. It was followed by Directi’s .pw (8,587) and Afilias’ .info (3,707).

When taking into account the relative size of the TLDs, SpamHaus fingered Russian ccTLD .ru as the “most heavily abused” TLD, but its numbers don’t ring true to me.

With 1,370 botnet controllers and about five and a half million domains, .ru’s abused domains would be around 0.03%.

But if you look at .click, with 1,256 botnet C&Cs and 131,000 domains (as of September), that number is very close to 1%. When it comes to botnets, that’s a high number.

In fact, using SpamHaus numbers and September registry reports of total domains under management, it seems that .work, .space, .website, .top, .pro, .biz, .info, .xyz, .bid and .online all have higher levels of botnet abuse than .ru, though in absolute numbers some have fewer abused domains.

In terms of registrars, Namecheap was the runaway loser, with a whopping 11,878 domains used to control botnets.

While SpamHaus acknowledges that the size of the registrar has a bearing on abuse levels, it’s worth noting that GoDaddy — by far the biggest registrar, but well-staffed with over-zealous abuse guys — does not even feature on the top 20 list here.

SpamHaus wrote:

While the total numbers of botnet domains at the registrar might appear large, the registrar does not necessarily support cybercriminals. Registrars simply can’t detect all fraudulent registrations or registrations of domains for criminal use before those domains go live. The “life span” of criminal domains on legitimate, well-run, registrars tends to be quite short.

However, other much smaller registrars that you might never have heard of (like Shinjiru or WebNic) appear on this same list. Several of these registrars have an extremely high proportion of cybercrime domains registered through them. Like ISPs with high numbers of botnet controllers, these registrars usually have no or limited abuse staff, poor abuse detection processes, and some either do not or cannot accept takedown requests except by a legal order from the local government or a local court.

The SpamHaus report, which you can read here, concludes with a call for registries and registrars to take more action to shut down repeat offenders, saying it is “embarrassing” that some registrars allow perpetrators to register domains for abuse over and over and over again.

SpamHaus now publishing better TLD abuse data

SpamHaus has updated its “10 Most Abused Top Level Domains” list to provide a much more useful insight into abuse levels.

Rather than simply showing unexplained percentages of “badness” in each TLD, the spam-fighting organization’s daily report now exposes the hard numbers, in domain terms, underneath.

For example, on today’s list Famous Four Media’s .download is the most-abused TLD with 82% bad domains.

That percentage is based on SpamHaus categorizing 11,431 domains as abusive of the 13,945 .download domains that crossed its systems.

But the gTLD has 67,500 domains in its zone file, so the actual percentage of abusive domains could be as low as about 17%, much lower than SpamHaus’s 82%.

Whether you think the 82% metric is fair will depend on whether you think SpamHaus’s sample — about 20% of the full .download zone — is representative.

Some of the other TLDs on its list have even smaller sample sizes.

Minds + Machines’ .work is ranked #2 on the SpamHaus list with 73.3% badness, based on a SpamHaus-seen sample of 6,297 domains, something like 7% of the full .work zone.

Registries criticized SpamHaus for publishing misleading data when this list was first published in March, and I agreed with them.

Now that the group is publishing empirical data alongside its percentages, the conversation can now shift to something along the lines of:

“Is it okay that at least 17% of .download domains are abusive?”

To which the answer I believe is a clear: “Hell, no.”

The SpamHaus daily report can be found here.

Schilling, Famous Four rubbish Spamhaus “worst TLD” league

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2016, Domain Registries

Uniregistry and Famous Four Media have trashed claims by Spamhaus that their gTLDs are are much as 75% spam.

FFM says it is “appalled” by the “wholly inaccurate” claims, while Uniregistry boss Frank Schilling said Spamhaus has “totally jumped the shark here.”

In a statement to DI today, FFM chief legal officer Oliver Smith said the spam-fighting organization’s recently launched World’s Worst TLDs list is “reckless”, adding that the numbers are:

not only wholly inaccurate, but are misleading and, potentially, injurious to the reputation of Famous Four Media and those TLDs it manages. It is particularly worrisome that Spamhaus’s “findings” seem to have been taken as gospel within certain corners of the industry, despite not being proffered with any analytical methodology in support of the same.

The Spamhaus report, which is updated daily, presents the 10 TLDs that are more spam than not.

The rank is based on a percentage of domains seen by Spamhaus that Spamhaus considers to be “bad” — that is, are advertised in spam or carry malware.

Today, Uniregistry’s .diet tops the chart with “74.4% bad domains”, but the scores and ranks can and do shift significantly day by day.

Spamhaus describes its methodology like this:

This list shows the ratio of domains seen by the systems at Spamhaus versus the domains our systems profile as spamming or being used for botnet or malware abuse. This is also not a list that retains a long history, it is a one-month “snapshot” of our current view.

The words “seen by the systems at Spamhaus” are important. If a domain name never crosses Spamhaus’s systems, it isn’t counted as good or bad. The organization is not running the whole zone file against its block-list to check what the empirical numbers are.

In important ways, the Spamhaus report is similar to the discredited Blue Coat report into “shady” TLDs last September, which was challenged by myself and others.

However, in a blog post, Spamhaus said it believes its numbers are reflective of the TLDs as a whole:

In the last 18-years, Spamhaus has built its data gathering systems to have a view of most of the world’s domain traffic. We feel the numbers shown on this list are representative of the actual full totals.

I disagree.

In the case of .diet, for example, if 74% of the full 19,000-domain zone was being used in spam, that would equate to 14,000 “bad” domains.

But the .diet zone is dominated by domains owned by North Sound Names, the Frank Schilling vehicle through which Uniregistry markets its premium names.

NSN snapped up well over 13,000 .diet names at launch, and Schilling said today that NSN owns north of 70% of the .diet zone.

That would mean either Uniregistry is a spammer, or Spamhaus has no visibility into the NSN portfolio and its numbers are way the hell off.

“Spamhaus’ assertion that 74% of the registrations in the .diet space are spam is a numerical impossibility,” Schilling said. “They totally jumped the shark here.”

NSN’s domains don’t send mail, he said.

He added that diet-related products are quite likely to appear in spam, which may help account for Spamhaus’s systems identifying .diet emails as spam. He said:

Spamhaus is a high-minded organization and we applaud their efforts but this report is so factually inaccurate it casts into doubt the validity of everything they release. Spamhaus should be smarter than this and at a minimum consult with registries (our door is open) to gain a better understanding of the subject matter they wrongly profess to be expert in.

Similarly, FFM’s .review gTLD was briefly ranked last week as the “worst” gTLD at 75.1% badness. With 66,000 domains, that would mean almost 50,000 names are spammy.

Yet it appears that roughly 25,000 .review domains are long-tail geo names related to the hotels industry, registered by a Gibraltar company called A Domains Limited, which appears to be run by AlpNames, the registry with close ties to FFM itself.

Again, if Spamhaus’s numbers are accurate, that implies the registrar and/or registry are spamming links to content-free placeholder web sites.

FFM’s Smith says the registry has been using Spamhaus data as part of its internal Registry Abuse Monitoring tool, and that its own findings show significantly less spam. Referring to .review’s 75% score, he said:

This simply does not accord with FFM’s own research, which relies heavily on data made available by Spamhaus. The reality is that, in reviewing registration data for the period 8 February to 8 March 2016, only 4.8% of registered domains have been blacklisted by Spamhaus – further, it is questionable as whether every single such listing is wholly merited. When reviewing equivalent data for the period of 1 January to 8 March 2016 across ALL FFM managed TLDs this rate averages out to a mere 3.2%.

I actually conducted my own research into the claims.

Between March 8 and March 15, I ran the whole .review zone file through the Spamhaus DBL and found 6.9% of the names were flagged as spam.

My methodology did not take account of the fact that Spamhaus retires domains from its DBL after they stop appearing in spam, so it doesn’t present a perfect apples-to-apples comparison with Spamhaus, which bases its scoring on 30 days of data.

All told, it seems Spamhaus is painting a much bleaker picture of the amount of abuse in new gTLDs than is perhaps warranted.

During ICANN meetings last week and in recent blog comments, current and former executives of rival registries seemed happy to characterize new gTLD spam as a Famous Four problem rather than an industry problem.

That, despite the fact that Uniregistry, Minds + Machines and GMO also feature prominently on Spamhaus’s list.

I would say it’s more of a low prices problem.

It’s certainly true that FFM and AlpNames are attracting spammers by selling domains for $0.25 wholesale or free at retail, and that their reputations will suffer as a result.

We saw it with Afilias and .info in the early part of the last decade, we’ve see it with .tk this decade, and we’re seeing it again now.