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Senior Staff Writer

Ashley Madison used bots to entice men to spend money, says business is growing

Sep 01, 20154 mins
CybercrimeData and Information SecurityData Breach

ALMs bots were "a sophisticated, deliberate, and lucrative fraud" says Gizmodo

Avid Life Media (ALM) says that their Ashley Madison website is growing, despite the recent total compromise they’ve suffered and the coverage in the media that seriously questions their business practices.

ALM, the company behind Ashley Madison, a website that promotes affairs and caters to both married and single clientele, has been struggling to cope with a network breach that was first reported in July.

A group calling themselves Impact Team said the company profited on the pain of others and demanded that take their top two domains offline. If that didn’t happen, Impact Team promised to release the data compromised during the July incident.

True to their word, Impact Team spent most of August releasing ALM files and data, including transaction details, customer records, and the CEO’s email archives.

“The company continues its day-to-day operations even as it deals with the theft of its private data by criminal hackers. Despite having our business and customers attacked, we are growing. This past week alone, hundreds of thousands of new users signed up for the Ashley Madison platform – including 87,596 women,” ALM said in a statement on Monday.

“Last week alone, women sent more than 2.8 million messages within our platform. Furthermore, in the first half of this year the ratio of male members who paid to communicate with women on our service versus the number of female members who actively used their account (female members are not required to pay to communicate with men on Ashley Madison) was 1.2 to 1. These numbers are the main reason that Ashley Madison is the number one service for people seeking discreet relationships.”

The fallout of the Ashley Madison hack has seen high-profile figures exposed, and the resignation of the company CEO, Noel Biderman.

However, others have taken the data leaked by Impact Team and used it in an attempt to understand the Ashley Madison business model. Previously, it was reported that there were far more men on the Ashley Madison website than women, which isn’t at all surprising.

ALM used their statement on Monday to deny the previously reported ratio of men-to-women, which led to new research that uncovered bots on the website.

Over at Gizmodo, Annalee Newitz and two helpers analyzed the Ashley Madison source code taken by Impact Team and published to the Web.

They discovered the presence of “engagers” – or bots pretending to be women. In all, there were more than 70,000 bots discovered. This begs the question, how many of the 2.8 million messages ALM bragged about in their statement were simply bots following orders?

“I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?” – Example engager message, shown after a male responds to the initial contact.

In the article outlining the data, Newitz said that Ashley Madison’s “army of fembots appears to have been a sophisticated, deliberate, and lucrative fraud.”

“That said, a huge portion of Ashley Madison’s software development efforts are aimed at refining their fembot army, to make it seem that women are active on the site. Either they did this because the number of real women was vanishingly small, or because they didn’t want men to hook up with real women and stop buying credits from the company.”

Based on the financials leaked by Impact Team, which were in the CEO’s emails, the bots earned Ashley Madison about $50,000 in extra revenue per month once activated.

ALM has offered a reward of $500,000 CAD for information leading to the identification and arrest of anyone connected to Impact Team. So far, the company hasn’t made any progress on the investigation, but law enforcement says that the case is ongoing.