Category Archives: Computer Security

Valentine’s Day scams: phishing, malware and identity theft.

It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s always a scam based on it.

As February 14th approaches, in addition to the usual horrible rom-com movies and terrible greeting card poetry, there are some specific types of fraud you’ll want to avoid.

Phishing

If you get an email that says your online floral purchase didn’t process and that you need to re-enter your credit card information, it’s a safe bet you’re looking at a phishing message.

The link embedded in this email will take you to a site that might look legitimate, but is really only designed to steal your card information and possibly install malware on your computer. Delete the message with extreme prejudice. If you think it might be legit, contact the company directly, but most likely you’ll find out it was a scam.

It’s another example of how crooks adapt to the situation. 99% of the time, if you received this message, you’d know it was a scam. However, around the middle of February, there are hundreds of thousands of people to whom the phrase “just bought flowers online” applies. When this message goes out, it’s probably going to find a lot of potential victims.

Malware

I dislike e-cards. I really do. I don’t think I’ve opened one since around 1998, actually. To me, they’re either a waste of time (when they’re out of the blue) or a way to say “wanted to technically contact you, but didn’t want to spend $2 on a card and the sound of your voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me” (when they’re sent for holidays and birthdays). In any case, they’re never entertaining or sincere.

They’re also a source of malware infections. When you get an email that says you’ve got an e-card, proceed with caution. If you want to read it, the best thing you can do is contact the supposed sender directly to find out if they actually sent it to you. However, even the e-card sites that aren’t trying to nuke your computer with viruses can still annoy by installing adware. In any case, make sure your virus and spyware protection are up-to-date.

What I do is just delete them outright. If somebody asks, “Hey, ‘ja get that e-card I sentcha?” just reply, “Yeah—it was really great, thanks!” and leave it at that. Most of the time, you’ll be fine.

Identity Theft

People are looking for dates around this time of year, too. If you’re really desperate to have a date on 2/14, I guess my first piece of advice would be to ask yourself some tough questions, but if you can’t get past the idea of being single on V-Day, watch out when it comes to online dating sites.

First, there are fake dating sites designed to harvest credit card and personal information, putting you at risk of fraud. There are also people who post fake profiles, in an attempt to lure you into revealing personal information that can be used for identity crimes. Stick with the larger, more well-known sites, use a screen name instead of your real name, and set up a new email account with one of the free web-based providers. That way, you’re covered if they sell your address to spammers, and no weirdoes end up with your “real” email address. It makes it easier to disappear.

Don’t trust links to any dating sites that come in the form of unsolicited emails or via Twitter or Facebook. Those are almost always going to not be what is promised.

If it were me, I’d probably skip the online avenue altogether and consider attending a social event. Everywhere from churches to bowling alleys have singles events this time of year. Maybe try that; at least you won’t have to give up your credit card numbers.

Ransomware: It’s a fake virus scanner, only more violent.

Last September, I wrote about fake virus scan pop-ups that you sometimes encounter while using a web browser, sometimes known as “scareware.”

What I didn’t cover was a class of malicious software known as “ransomware,” the fake virus scanner’s more violent cousin. The difference?

  • Scareware: tries to trick you into purchasing useless software and probably installs spyware, adware and other malware.
  • Ransomware: poses as a virus scanner, but locks up your computer and forces you to purchase useless software to unlock your computer. Also likely installs a bunch of other malware, in addition to the fact that you’ve just given criminals your credit card number.

It’s kind of the difference between a con artist and a mugger, I guess.

There’s no real way to tell offhand whether a fake virus scan pop-up window is scareware or ransomware. It doesn’t really matter—you don’t want it either way. The same rules for prevention apply in both cases.

Both start the same way: you visit a website and a window pops up that tells you your computer is infected with a virus. The pop-up almost always has an “OK” and a “Cancel” button. Do not click on either of these, because they both install the malware.

You can click on the “X” in the upper-right corner of the window, but I don’t even like to do that. I use “CTRL-ALT-DEL” to force the browser to close. I think the Mac version of “CTRL-ALT-DEL” is “Command-Option-Escape.”

After I’ve shut down the browser, I run a virus scan and a spyware scan. It’s sort of a pain and it takes a while, but too many people value convenience over security, and they end up paying for it. There are very few instances in which it’s not possible to find something else to do while your virus scanner runs. You don’t have to be on the Internet 24/7, you know.

Now, I’m not one to tell anybody what brand of web browser to use, but I will say one thing on the topic: since I switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox with the NoScript plug-in, I haven’t had a single scareware window pop up. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just sayin’.

Also, I know it costs money, but you cannot afford not to do it: install some good antivirus software, keep it updated and keep your subscription current. Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky; I don’t care which one you use, just use something. No, it’s not super cheap, but if you’d rather shell out $79 to unlock ransomware than spend $69 on actual protection…well, in that case I think there’s just something the matter with you.

Finally, for an extra level of protection, install the excellent (and free!) Spybot Search & Destroy. Yes, right now. There is one annoying thing about this software, though, and it’s Microsoft’s fault: in Windows Vista and Windows 7, in order to run S&D properly, you can’t just click on the icon. You have to right-click the icon and select “Run as administrator.” You won’t be able to actually remove anything if you skip this step.

There’s a recent story about ransomware at MSNBC, with a video that shows the malware in action (and actually shows you how to unlock it with hacked registration codes).

LongURL: How to see where a shortened URL takes you before you click.

Twitter (and to some extent, Facebook) have seen the rise of the URL Shortener.

When you want to share a link on Twitter, you run into a problem: the web address you need to paste takes up most or all of your allotted 140 characters, which leaves no room for your commentary, or extends beyond 140, which renders the link useless. However, sharing links is about half of what people use Twitter for (other than pointless babble and talking about what they just ate. Amiright?).

Along came the URL shorteners.

With a URL shortening website, you can enter a long web address, and the site will create a link that only uses up a few characters, which leaves room for you to tell people exactly what the link is.

For example, if you wanted to point to this article on Twitter, you could paste this link:

http://fraudpreventionunit.org/2010/01/12/longurl-how-to-see-where-a-shortened-url-takes-you-before-you-click

Or you could use this:

http://bit.ly/cMIkCZ

The first one uses up 109 characters, which only leaves you room to say “Cool!” or something, which makes the link look suspicious. The second link only uses 20, which leaves you 120 characters, more than enough for a short sentence or explanation.

Bit.ly is just one of the popular URL shorteners. Others that spring to mind offhand are Ow.ly, Tr.im, and Tinyurl.com. WordPress has its own service, too; Wp.me.

Now, here’s the problem. When you look at a shortened URL, there’s no way to tell where it takes you. Of course, you can look at the text it was pasted with, but there’s a problem there, too: several years ago, somebody discovered that it’s possible to lie on the Internet.

What this means is that a person with questionable intentions could post a shortened URL and tell you it’s a link to an interesting video or article, but have the link actually take you to a site that will install some form of virus or spyware (read: financial and identity theft risk) onto your computer.

Along comes LongURL, a shortened URL decoder.

LongURL is a site that allows you to paste a shortened URL and it will tell you the address of the site it points to. It’s sort of like a reverse phone lookup.

It’s not just a website, either. If you’re using Mozilla Firefox as your web browser (and, to be honest, you really should be), you can install LongURL as a plugin. This means you don’t have to visit the LongURL website every time you want to expand a URL.

“But,” I can hear some of you saying, “isn’t it awfully inconvenient to have to check out every shortened URL before I click it? I don’t want to slow down!”

Well, that’s one of the attitudes that keeps Internet crime so lucrative. It’s been a long time since malware was the exclusive domain of nerdy suburban kids and college students trying to cause disruptions or simply stroke their own egos by putting out a widespread and annoying (but relatively harmless) virus. These days, most of the people creating malware and using all these different tactics to distribute it are involved in organized crime and/or terrorism (or at best, extremely scummy marketing practices). It’s all about money now.

When you insist on unconsciously following any link you feel like following, without taking a moment to consider the possible consequences, all in the name of not wanting to slow down, you’re playing right into these criminals’ hands. It won’t be long before you fall for a shortened URL phishing attack and end up with a computer just brimming with bad juju.

I mean, it’s hard enough to keep your computer clean if you are paying attention, what with so much of the software industry’s insistence on rushing sub-par products to market that are vulnerable to things that, frankly, should have been eliminated 15 years ago (all in the name of speed, as usual). If you’re just blindly speeding along and not taking a couple seconds to look where you’re going, you’re going to run into something nasty before too long.

Ask yourself this: “Would I rather take an extra five seconds to check out what this URL is pointing to, or would I rather end up with a computer full of viruses (which could take hours or days to fix) or an identity theft situation (which could take months to fix)?”

Go to LongURL. Pay attention. Stay vigilant. Slow down.

Fraudulent Facebook email contains malware attachment.

There’s a new fake email message making its way around the web the last few months. This time, it targets Facebook users.

The messages all have something to do with your Facebook password, using subject lines such as “Password Reset Confirmation Email.” They contain an attachment that is supposed to be your new password, but is actually a pretty nasty Trojan horse program that opens your computer up to a variety of attacks. One of these programs is known as Bredolab, and it’s just bad news all around. Below is the text of an example message from “The Facebook Team:”

Hey,
Because of the measures taken to provide safety to our clients your password has been changed. You can find your new password in attached document.

Thanks

The Facebook Team

There are other fake Facebook messages that try to lure victims with a “New Login System” message and contain a disguised link. In this case, it seems to be a pretty standard password-stealing attempt, but given the amount of malware that can be spread and the fraud that can be committed with a hacked Facebook account, it could lead to much worse problems than someone just messing with your Facebook page.

Facebook is never going to send you an email message with your password as an attachment. In fact, they’re never going to send you an attachment at all. If you get one of these messages, hold your cursor over the link (DO NOT CLICK) and you’ll see that the message actually takes you to a non-Facebook website (most likely hosted overseas).

Furthermore, Facebook isn’t going to “confirm” your request for a password reset unless you’ve actually requested it, and any links contained in these messages will be hosted at Facebook.com, not a website with just an IP address (numbers separated by periods, as in “123.45.678.90”), and not a website hosted overseas.

Once again, a new threat just goes to reinforce the old rules of thumb: never open an attachment in an email message you weren’t expecting, and never click on links in an unsolicited email message without verifying first that the message is legitimate.

What is the deal with Facebook and Twitter lately? It seems like they’ve both been targets of an awful lot of phishing, fraud and malware activity these past few months.

Both sites have astounding numbers of users—I recently heard that if Facebook was a country, it would be the fourth most populous in the world, just behind the U.S.—so I imagine it has to do with the sheer numbers involved. When you’ve got over 300 million potential victims, even a 0.1% success rate (1 in 1,000) is a pretty large number of people.

Email security: apparently, the “Preview Pane” isn’t instant death after all.

Several years ago, some nasty worms made their way around the Internet, spreading via email.

Some of these could apparently install themselves and propagate simply by viewing an infected message in Microsoft Outlook’s “Preview Pane.”

The Preview Pane is a quick way to view emails, in case you’re out of the loop here. When you open your version of Outlook or Outlook Express, if there are only two columns, that means you’ve got the Preview Pane turned off. You have to double-click any messages you want to read.

If the right-hand column (where new message subject lines appear) is divided horizontally, and you can view the contents of a message in the lower section simply by single-clicking in the message in the top window, you’ve got Preview Pane turned on.

Anyway, after these viruses cause a moderate amount of trouble (and a whole lot of panic), the call went out: whatever you do, never turn Preview Pane ON!

Well, that was several years ago, and occasionally things do get fixed when it comes to software. Basically, if you’re running Outlook 2003 or any later version, or are running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 installed, it’s not an issue anymore.

In other words, on these later versions of Outlook, when you use the preview pane to view a message, you’re not…opening opening the message, you’re just sort of looking at the text. Any embedded HTML or images will not appear, unless you’ve set the option to automatically do so.

The default setting is to not run HTML or pictures automatically, so unless you’ve messed around with your settings a whole bunch, you should be fine. If you get image-rich emails from places like Best Buy and Amazon that show nothing but a bunch of “red X’s” instead of pictures, and you have to tell the software to show them, you’re set up right.

If you still want to turn Preview Pane off, click “View” at the top of the screen, then select “Layout” from the menu. You can turn it off from there.

I turned Preview Pane back on just the other day, after about seven years of keeping it turned off. On my machine, Outlook always seems to take too long to open messages the other way, like the computer was thinking an awful long time just to open an email message, so I already prefer the new way. Or the old way. Whatever you’d call it.

Microsoft Internet Explorer vs. Mozilla Firefox: which browser is safer?

Just the other day, news of a pretty major hole in Internet Explorer versions 6 and 7 was made public (no word on whether or not the vulnerability applies to version 8, which is the latest one at this time).

Why did the “hacker” in question make this information public? Some people might assume he or she wants to cause widespread chaos, but I actually think it’s good to publicly post things like this. This forces Microsoft to come up with a patch for the problem as soon as possible.

However, I recently decided I’m sort of done with always waiting for Microsoft to patch browser software that has more holes than a hunk of Swiss, and made the switch to Mozilla Firefox.

I can’t really give you the tech-head reasons why I feel Firefox is the better, safer browser (mostly because I’m not much of a tech-head), but a large portion of the Internet-savvy population agrees that it’s the way to go.

For one thing, Firefox is “open source” software. A whole community of programmers is constantly making improvements to it. Should the rare security vulnerability come to light, it’s fixed in record time.

Microsoft is at a disadvantage here. Being a huge corporation with shareholders’ interests as their primary concern, they have multiple levels of bureaucracy to work through before they can release anything. I’m sure even a simple security patch is met with resistance—”This will mean publicly admitting a weakness, which could hurt share prices!”

I’m not saying Microsoft couldn’t release a great browser right out of the box, I just think that with their deadlines and the need to think about profitability above all else, they tend to rush releases before everything is ready.

The cool thing about Firefox is that there are all kinds of plug-ins (or “add-ons”) available. Right now, I run the latest version of Firefox with a plug-in called “NoScript.” This nifty little program starts you off by blocking ALL Flash, Java and JavaScript programs. As you visit websites, you get to choose whether or not to allow it to run all, some, or none of the scripts embedded in the site.

For example, if you visit Facebook, it will start by blocking every script. Then you can select “Allow facebook.com” to run scripts. There will usually be several different websites per page running scripts, so you can select whether or not you trust them. If you don’t like the look of one of the URLs, simply don’t allow that site to run code, or search for it on Google to find out what it is (for example, I don’t let Fastclick.net run scripts. Ever).

There are some other good plug-ins, most of which I haven’t looked at. Some block pop-ups, some probably don’t work too great at all. The Firefox site has a big list of available add-ons.

There are a million better articles than this one about “Internet Explorer vs. Firefox” (just do a Google search), but if you’re ready to switch now, go download Firefox here and get the NoScript plug-in here.

Fraud/Malware Alert: Intelligence Bulletin No. 267

Here is some text from a fraudulent email that’s been popping up lately:

INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN No. 267
Title: New Patterns in Al-Qaeda Financing
Date: August 15, 2009
THREAT LEVEL: YELLOW (ELEVATED)

THE INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN PROVIDES LAW ENFORCEMENT AND OTHER PUBLIC SAFETOFFICIALS WITH SITUATIONAL AWARENESS CONCERNING INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESIC TERRORIST GROUPS AND TACTICS.

HANDLING NOTICE: Recipients are reminded that FBI Intelligence Bulletins =ontain sensitive terrorism and counterterrorism information meant for us= primarily within the law enforcement community. Such bulletins are not =o be released either in written or oral form to the media, the general p=blic, or other personnel who do not have a valid ?eed-to-know?with=ut prior approval from an authorized FBI official, as such release could jeopardize national security

All the spelling errors and odd characters are exactly as they appear in the message.

Do I even need to tell you this one is fraudulent?

If so, it is.

Furthermore, the message often contains a file named “bulletin.exe.” If you open this file, it will install malicious software on your computer, which can lead to serious problems (like fraud and identity theft).

The FBI does not email official reports, nor does it send unsolicited email messages. If a document is confidential, they’re going to keep it that way.

Whenever you get an email message you weren’t expecting, from someone you don’t know, use extreme caution when dealing with it. My advice is to not even open unsolicited messages, and delete them right away. However, at the very least, never click on links or open attachments in emails unless you already know what the file (or link) is, why it’s being sent to you, and who sent it.

How phishing and work-at-home schemes work together

I just read a really eye-opening report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) about how phishing emails, fraudulent ACH transactions and work-at-home schemes can be connected.

It starts with a “spear-phishing” message. Spear-phishing is a targeting form of phishing, made to look like it comes from someone you know, possibly a friend or employer. This message, rather than the usual phishing angle (“click this link to verify your account information”) will either contain a malware-infected attachment, or will link to a website that infects the user’s computer with malware.

This malware includes a keylogger program, which sends a record of keystrokes back to whoever originated the scheme. Once the victim logs into one of their financial institution accounts, this information is relayed back to the crooks.

At this point, the crooks will use either wire or ACH transfers to remove money from the victim’s account. However, it doesn’t end here.

The next victims in the process are those who have fallen for some form of work-at-home scheme (usually “processing payments” or similar). The money stolen from the first victim is wired into an account held by the next victim, who then transfers it back to the criminals, thinking they are actually processing a “payment” from the original victim.

So, they’re not just logging keystrokes to steal money from one group, they’re using a second set of victims to launder the money for them.

It would be brilliant if it weren’t so slimy.

This got me thinking about US Surveys, Inc., whom I wrote about a couple months ago. In doing research on this obvious mystery shopper scam, I actually came across a few victims who, at least for their first “assignment,” had actually made around $100. “They wired $900 into my Citibank account, then had me wire $800 back to them.” It was only on their second “assignment,” when they were asked to wire their own money first, that they began to wise up.

I thought that was kind of weird at the time. Were they actually paying you the first time just to earn your trust? It seemed like an awfully big gamble, since people were realizing that it was a scam soon afterwards (not to mention the risk of someone just taking the $900 and running).

Now it makes sense. The initial $900 was probably money stolen from a spear-phishing victim. That $100 these people had made was their payoff for helping someone launder money. They weren’t being ripped off initially, but they were helping a criminal conceal the source of funds.

The second, “Now wire us your money first” assignment was probably just an attempt at an extra payoff on their way out the door; by that point, the original victim (whose money was being laundered in the first transaction) had most likely discovered the fraud and locked the account. Thieves have to move quickly from victim to victim these days.

What all this leads me to is the following:

  1. Keep your virus protection up-to-date
  2. Learn about different types of scams so you’ll know what to watch for
  3. Do not become involved in work-at-home schemes that involve “processing payments” or wire transfers; these are money laundering schemes; the only real ways to legitimately work at home are to start your own business, or to work for a company that allows telecommuting
  4. The multi-level integration of these different types of fraud is terribly sophisticated; this is organized crime
  5. Because of #4 above, your best bet is just to avoid, avoid, avoid. Lose any big ideas you might have about trying to “scam the scammers”
  6. If you are a victim of this type of crime, in addition to the standard credit locks and police reports, file a complaint with the IC3; your information could help federal law enforcement stop this type of crime in the future.