An illustration of a CAPTCHA. NPR illustration.

NPR Illustration

Buy concert tickets online or create a new e-mail account, and you will be confronted with a puzzle of sorts.That is a CAPTCHA. A human can decipher it but a computer cannot. It’s a way to thwart spam. But the spammers have found a low-cost, low-tech way around the device — human beings.

According to Stefan Savage, U.C. San Diego Professor of Computer Science, spammers and mass-ticket purchasers have outsourced CAPTCHA-solving. Teams of low-wage workers in Russia and Southeast Asia are very effective. Most do not speak English, nor do they need to. Although most modern CAPTCHAs use Latin characters, the workers merely need to look at the symbols and type the matching ones on their keyboards.

Savage says these CAPTCHA-solving teams are “effectively sweatshop labor, where people are … given these images to solve and type in all day.” They are fast, completing a CAPTCHA in 10 – 20 seconds. The going rate is about $0.75 per 1,000 CAPTCHAs solved (about $2 – 3 a day). It is comparable to the lowest paid textile work, while the quality of life is slightly better than being in a textile mill.

It is unclear if any laws are being broken by CAPTCHA sweatshops. Solving a CAPTCHA is not illegal, yet the action supports fraudulent activity.

Even though CAPTCHAs don’t ultimately prevent abuse, they still serve a purpose. The spammers still need to earn a positive return on their operations, sending enough spam from each account to be worthwhile.

Savage says “CAPTCHAs are effective at keeping the problem in control … [the cost of CAPTCHA-solving] is enough to weed out a huge number of the people who would play this game.”