Sunday, December 14, 2008

Most Internet Scams Start with Spam

I'm sure we've all noticed spam levels are slightly down, or that our spam filters seem to be working a little better. Nevertheless, spam continues to get through filters and for the next few weeks, a lot of it will have a holiday theme. Due to the sour economic situation, it's also likely going to take advantage of financial fears or the promise of a rescue from an already bad situation.

Since most unfortunate situations involving fraud, phishing, and financial misdeeds on the Internet start with a spam e-mail, it pays to use a little common sense and caution before falling for a too good to be true, or sometimes scary e-mail from an unknown source.

Last week, Symantec issued its December 2008 State of Spam Report. It predicts that although spam volumes are down after a lot of providers blocked access to sites hosted by, we will likely see them rise again. Spam levels dropped a reported 65 percent after this happened. " was allegedly hosting a significant number of botnet command-and-control systems'" according to the report. The bad news is that the report indicates the bad guys are moving elsewhere and that a number of them are hosting their efforts from IP addresses in (where else) China.

Getting back to the holiday season, the report notes that spammers are mimicking marketing come-ons from legitimate retailers offering holiday shopping deals. This makes it hard to distinguish exactly who is behind the e-mail. Sometimes the line between legitimate and illegitimate becomes a little blurry, which is something spammers have always taken advantage of.

The report also reveals a lot of links leading to malware infected sites in spam e-mails are using political themes to draw in their victims. Items related to Barack Obama are especially popular with spammers and scammers. In another twist to using Obama's good name, one spam campaign offered a Barack Obama coin, "a piece of history for only $9.95 plus shipping." This was an attempt to steal debit and credit card information.

Hot news stories were also used as lures to download malicious software. In particular, the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks pointed to links designed to infect machines. Ironically, a lot of this malware is designed to turn a computer into what is referred to as a "zombie," which when used in a botnet is used to send out even more spam.

While we haven't seen the holiday season pass, spammers of the scammer type are already using the IRS name to steal personal and financial information. The pre-tax season phishing scheme mentioned in the Symantec Report involved a come-on designed to snare people by telling them they had a tax refund or economic stimulus payment due to them. The link in these e-mails went to fake IRS site(s) — complete with offical logos — designed to steal personal and financial information.

The IRS isn't alone when it comes to having their good name spoofed. Just this week the FBI reported that their name was being used (yet again) in a campaign involving a typical Nigerian 419 scam. If an intended victim got leery after initially responding — they were threatened with "official consequences" should they fail to turn over the required personal and financial information.

Fear or scaring a victim into submitting to a scam is nothing new. In fact, some of it is now being referred to as Scareware. Scareware most frequently surfaces as a fake message claiming your computer is infected. In then offers to fix the problem for a nominal amount of money. My guess is that malware might actually be downloaded on a system by clicking on one of these come-ons.

Since it's hard to pay in cash over the Internet, anyone who pays on this form of extortion might have their method of payment stolen, also. Symantec recently released another report showing how many personal and financial details are for sale (super-cheap) on the Internet.

Alex Eckelberry of Sunbelt Software and the popular Sunbelt Blog just posted a visual presentation of scareware examples on his Flickr account.

There is little doubt that spam and its intended purposes have made the electronic world somewhat of a "virtual minefield" at times. It pays to make your computer bullet-proof by using good state of the art software from a legitimate vendor, but even if you are protected in this manner, you also need to protect yourself from social engineering schemes designed to lure a person into doing something they are going to regret later.

The Anti Phishing Working Group offers sage advice (from a variety of reputable sources) to the average person on how to avoid becoming a victim. Interestingly enough, they also recently released a report that is rather ominous stating the the number of crimeware spreading URLs are at an all-time high. Crimeware is another name for malware when it has a pure criminal intent.

To close this post, I'll point to a amusing video Symantec did on the 12 Days of Christmas Spam. It's probably best to end on a lighter note on what has become a serious problem.

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