Cybercriminals are offering a bounty for those that infect PCs with malware – with UK and US targets being most highly prized.
Pay-Per-Install.org is a malware market where pushers of Trojan downloaders and tools for evading detection are bargaining with thousands of would-be "affiliates" willing to compromise victims' computers globally and get paid for it.
The pay-per-install rate is quite high for PCs in the UK, fetching $110 per 1,000 computers, in the US it is $140 per thousand. In Italy it is $60; in France $30 and just $6 in Asia.
Russia and its neighbours, such as Belarus and Ukraine, are considered off limits. "They will not pay for installs in Russia or former Soviet Bloc countries," says Kevin Stevens, a researcher at SecureWorks, which recently issued a report delving into the malware bargaining that goes on at Pay-Per-Install.org.
The online forum encompasses about 10 distinct entities, such as TrafCash.com and earning4u.com (believed since August to be the new name of InstallsCash), angling for affiliates to do their dirty work to take control of computers they can exploit. "They don't want infection of Russian computers," said Stevens.
Some rogue antivirus software even has an installer component that checks to see if a user has visited sites such as Google.ru or vkontackte.ru, and if so will exit immediately.
Many researchers suspect Russian-speaking kingpins to be the key players at Pay-Per-Install.org, where forum discussions go on in both Russian and English. In addition, the earning4u site, which is among the most notorious, has a Russian IP address.
There's plenty of speculation why big-time malware pushers such as earning4u.com wouldn't want to mess with computers owned by Russians or in countries bordering Russia where many ethnic Russians reside. But the most likely explanation is one put forward by Benjamin Edelman, assistant professor at Harvard Business School in its negotiations, organisations and markets unit.
"Why would Russian law enforcement want to pursue attacks that never hurt Russians?" Edelman said. "By declining to hurt people in their own country, they discourage law enforcement from pursuing them."
Pay-Per-Install.org - where thousands of affiliates demand to be paid or brag about numbers of computers infected - is drawing mounting interest from security researchers.
"The hot thing now is rogue antivirus software,'" says Eric Chien, technical director at Symantec's security technology and response division. "It pops up and says you're infected, convincing users to go pay $70 to get de-infected." Most of the code writers for the pay-per-install sites are believed to be based in Eastern Europe or Russia, Chien says.