You have to give spammers credit for effort: Symantec found a spam campaign that manages to abuse three Web services at the same time.
It starts on Snapchat, where some users receive an unsolicited photo message asking the person to add a contact as a friend on Kik Messenger, an instant messaging application, wrote Satnam Narang, a security response manager at Symantec, on a company blog.
Snapchat apologized on Monday for spam problems, saying it was the consequence of a fast-growing service. It recommended that users only allowed their approved friends to send them photos rather than receive unsolicited ones.
Narang wrote that if the spammy contact is added on Kik, a spam "bot," or a program designed to automatically chat with contacts, would send some canned text and a link shortened by Bitly. The links lead to sites trying to sign up users for adult webcam entertainment.
Part of the spammy Bitly links may look familiar.
"Spammers have found a way to create their own links using branded short domains in order to entice users into a false sense of security," he wrote.
Symantec found Bitly links generated using customs domains owned by brands and companies such as USA Today, National Geographic, the New York Post, Red Hat and MIT News, among others.
Custom domains can be registered with Bitly, which then appends a unique identifier on the end of the shortened URL that leads a person to its full content. The spammers abused the custom domains through an API (application programming interface) configuration problem, which left the API key visible.
"Bitly has confirmed that some spammers obtained Bitly API keys belonging to various brands," Narang wrote.
Bitly wrote in an email to IDG News Service that it was working with Symantec on the problem and pointed to its API best practices guide. Because of similar problems, the AddThis social bookmarking service also stopped requiring its users to reveal their API key in plain text as part of its code embedded in a website.
"Public exposure of API keys gives anybody the ability to compromise accounts and, in this case, create short URLs using other people's domains," Narang wrote.
Send news tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk