Spammers abuse .gov URL shortener service in work-at-home scams

Open redirect vulnerabilities on .gov websites allow spammers to abuse .gov URL shortener service, Symantec researchers say

Spammers have found a way to abuse a URL shortener service destined for U.S. government social media activities in order to craft rogue .gov URLs for work-at-home scams.

Security researchers from Symantec have detected a new email spam campaign that tries to trick users into visiting URLs with the domain name. This domain was created as the result of a partnership between the, the U.S. government's official Web portal, and the Bitly URL shortener service.

According to a how-to page on, when anyone uses to shorten URLs that end in .gov or .mil, the service will generate shorts URL under the domain.

"A short URL could take a user to a trustworthy site or a spam site, but a user would have no way of knowing before he or she clicks. That's why has made it easy for people to create short, trustworthy .gov URLs that only point to official U.S. government information," the Web page explains.

However, it seems that spammers have figured out a way to abuse the service and the inherent trust associated with .gov URLs by exploiting open redirect scripts found on some .gov websites.

Redirect scripts are used by website owners to track clicks to third-party URLs listed on their websites, to display warnings to users that they are leaving the website or for other purposes. However, these scripts are often left unprotected and open to any destination, which results in so-called open redirect vulnerabilities.

"By using an open-redirect vulnerability, spammers were able to set up a URL that leads to a spam website," Symantec researcher Eric Park said Friday in a blog post. In particular, the spammers used an open redirect script from the State of Vermont's Department of Labor website --, he said.

First, the spammers behind this campaign created scam websites masquerading as financial news sites that contain articles about work-at-home opportunities. This type of scam has been around for years and its goal is to convince users to pay for starter kits or service subscriptions that would allegedly allow them to start making money on the Internet by working from their home computer.

The scam websites used in this campaign were hosted on domains like,,,, and others.

The spammers exploited the open redirect vulnerability on the website to create URLs of the form[scam website]. These URLs were then passed through Bitly in order to generate short URLs, therefore creating a two-step redirect chain.

"While taking advantage of URL shorteners or an open-redirect vulnerability is not a new tactic, the fact that spammers can utilize a .gov service to make their own links is worrisome," Park said.

Public statistics provided by the Bitly for the rogue URLs used in this spam campaign showed that the links had been clicked 43,049 times between Oct. 12 and Oct. 18, with a significant spike in click volume on Oct. 18.

"The top four countries on a daily basis were the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain," Park said. "In aggregate, the United States made up the biggest slice with 61.7 percent of the clicks."

Gov URLs might inspire a higher degree of trust. However, users should always exercise caution when opening links, regardless of where they appear to be pointing to, Park said.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags e-governmentGovernment use of ITonline safetysymantecsecurityscamsgovernmentBitly

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts