Book Review – SPAM Nation by Brian Krebsadmin
Title: Spam Nation
Author: Brian Krebs
Published: Sourcebooks, Inc. Naperville, Illinios, USA.
Reading time: very easy going 4/5 hours
A very readable and enjoyable book that succeeds in covering new ground in the cyber-crime genre. Brian Krebs, the author is the ‘go-to’ authority on the subject as far as journalists go and it shows in the information and contacts he has utilised in this book. Krebs’ dedication to his work is also apparent in the fact that he persevered even in the face of chilling threats from the criminals whom he was reporting on against himself and his family. The book is centered around the so called ‘Pharma wars’ which was an ongoing, increasingly costly, bitter and damaging battle between the owners of the worlds two biggest rogue online pharmacies towards the end of the noughties. The book gives an exciting, detailed and educational account of the build up, what went on and the aftermath as well as a good overview of the workings of the multi million pound online ‘SPAM’ industry.
I do have one criticism though it isn’t really something that is wrong with the book just probably more based on my own expectations of it. When I bought the book I was expecting the story to be focused on the USA and the UK. What with a picture of a map of America and the cover and all. The book is actually focused on organisations and individuals entirely in Russia and eastern Europe. On reflection I should have expected this as that is where the majority of cyber-crime emanates from due to lax laws and corruption. I was hoping to read about criminals a bit closer to home but I can let it slide. The fact is that the people involved in the type of thing tend to be from Russia and Eastern Europe so I can’t criticise the book for that just it wasn’t what I expected is all. With that aside I will carry on with my review!
In terms of cyber-crime Russia is and always has been ground zero. Think of it as a digital wild west where it’s dog eat dog and the rules simply do not apply. The main reason for this is that the Russian government have long turned a blind eye to their citizens carrying out hacking and all sorts of nefarious activity online as long as they are not victimising their own. In other words the government’s stance is that as long as you don’t victimise other Russians then do what the hell you want. I won’t get it to the possible reasons for this (that would be a whole other article) I’ll just say that that’s how it is and therefore you find that the majority of cyber-crime emanates from this region.
I have read a number of books on cyber-crime (if you are just starting out I would recommend Dark Market by Misha Glenny and Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen) and I can tell you that good ones are few and far between. I have read books on credit card fraud, identity theft, cyber stalking, hacking, viruses, the history of hacking, famous hackers, famous hacks and so on. SPAM is one subject that I never really knew too much about apart from being on the receiving end of it on a daily basis!
So this book nicely filled a gap in my knowledge. It gives a first hand account (and yes we can use the words first hand as the author investigated, spoke with at length and even met the two main characters in the book) of the so called ‘Pharma Wars’. This term refers to the rivalry between two former business partners who would up running the worlds two biggest rogue pharmacies. Rogue pharmacies are those ones online where the dugs are a fraction of the price and you don’t need a prescription. The primary method that these companies use to advertise their wares is SPAM email hence the title of the book. I would say that the book is as much about the online pharmacies and the rivalries and relationships of those connected to them as it is about SPAM but I still think it is a fitting name.
I’m not going to spoil it but let me just give you a run down of what it doesn’t tell you on the blurb with regards to the content of the book. We start off being introduced to the main players, the wider community, the places they hang out and their other shady dealings which sets the tone. We are then taken through the inner workings of the industry and learn more about the main characters. The book basically charts the rise and fall of the rogue pharmacy industry. One where at it’s peak the two main pharmacies were turning over tens of millions of dollars to what it is now after too much attention from the wrong people meant a serious crack down. We are told about the various people and the methods which the use to keep our inboxes full of SPAM and how they all operate in close nit, organised communities online helping each other as much as they are competing. It’s an impressive business model but i’ll let you find that out for yourself!
One interesting thing that I picked up is that I think the author has a bit of a soft spot not just for the people he is reporting on but for the industry in general. We learn that actually these operations take great pride and care in customer service and contrary to popular belief when you buy from these people the chances are that the drugs you get are real and you’re actually getting quite a good deal. There is a token mention of a woman who was found surrounded by ‘counterfeit’ drugs dead but on the whole I felt that the industry was painted in a very positive light. An industry serving the needs of Americans who unlike everyone else have to pay through the nose for prescriptions. I learned that in fact these emails that I receive on a daily basis are not merely a scam but a business that actually offers hundreds of thousands of Americans a lifeline. Yes it is illegal, yes they advertise via SPAM and yes you are taking a chance. Nonetheless I was surprised to learn that is is more than just a scam email and that real people are buying real products to serve real needs. Albeit through not so legal channels. It was an interesting read and I was done in half a day so I would recommend it to anybody with an interest.
8/10 – an enjoyable, easy going read but more about the rivalry between two individuals as opposed to the SPAM industry as suggested by the title (and blurb!). Would still recommend.
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