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iMessage spam deluge traced to knock-offs in China

Text message spam is best ignored, but when a security researcher followed a trail of deception laid out on Apple's iMessage he became the proud owner of cheap designer accessories from China.

A knock-off Michael Kors handbag that Cloudmark researcher Tom Landesman got in the mail when he followed a spam link to its logical conclusion. Josh Miller/CNET

If you haven't gotten spam on your Apple iMessage, count yourself lucky.

Spam has been ballooning on the tech giant's mobile messaging service, security researchers at CloudMark say. In May, iMessage spam made up more than 40 percent of all mobile spam, anti-spam researcher Tom Landesman wrote in Cloudmark's quarterly report published earlier this week.

In the report, Landesman confirmed his suspicion that the spam came from China after buying the advertised designer-label knock-offs. They were all shipped from China.

Landesman began tracking spam on iMessage -- Apple's proprietary messaging service that connects Macs to iPhones and iPads -- after seeing a sudden rise on the company's internal spam-tracking charts last year. By its peak in August and September, the iMessage spam deluge made up "several million iMessages," accounting for nearly one out of every five iMessages sent between July and September, Landesman told CNET.

One example of iMessage spam that Cloudmark received. Cloudmark

The iMessage spam Cloudmark found "debunks claims that iMessage messaging is more resistant to spam," than its competitors, Landesman told CNET.

Last year, the US Federal Trade Commission cracked down on 29 alleged spammers charged with sending more than 180 million unwanted text messages designed to trick people into handing over personal information.

Spammers are flocking to alternative text messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and WeChat because they don't need to use specialized software or other equipment to send spam. Even better: Such services don't charge spammers a fee for texting. Research firm Analysys Mason estimates more than 10.3 trillion messages were sent from these services in 2013, and expects that to rise to more than 37.8 trillion messages in 2018.

Apple didn't respond to two requests for comment.

While iMessage had avoided widespread spam attacks for years, it's become clear that the service is now attractive and vulnerable to spammers because they can send spam both to your desk and your mobile device.

"All it takes is four lines of code to send iMessage spam from your Mac," Landesman said. The spammers may have targeted US iMessage users because of their relative wealth.

The spam took him to websites hawking purported designer goods, notably Oakley, Ray Ban, and Michael Kors. All the goods were shipped from in or around Suzhou, a major city near Shanghai.

Landesman said it was unusual for spammers to deliver physical goods instead of selling your credit card information. He received a black-and-pink handbag, that was "obviously a fake." It had a tag written in Chinese and sported gold buttons inscribed in English with the words "Xing Hua."

Chances are, authentic Michael Kors bags don't say "Xing Hua" on their buttons. Josh Miller/CNET

The iMessage spam campaign of the past summer isn't the only time this has happened. Last Thanksgiving, spammers targeted iMessage users in Los Angeles and New York City. Spam attacks against iMessage were first reported in March 2013.

Law firms took notice of the spam and the websites advertising counterfeit goods and issued takedown notices on behalf of the fashion houses. Not long after, iMessage spam trickled to a crawl, Landesman said in the Cloudmark report. Despite that, 92 percent of iMessage spam sent between October 13 and October 20 came from Chinese email services, he said.

Apple has taken some steps to reduce spam this past year. These include an option to report spammers and limits on how many messages a single user can send at once.

"If [iMessage] remains as is, we will definitely see more" spam, since it's so easy to abuse, Landesman said.