Tag Archives: ransomware

An example of the exact type of email you should NOT open

Here’s a screenshot of something that appeared in my inbox recently:

2015-12-21-spam

I spend a lot of time trying to describe the kinds of emails you should avoid, but this one illustrates those concepts perfectly. Let’s look at a few warning signs:

  1. The message wasn’t expected (I’m not a USAA member, but even if I was, this isn’t a usual email)
  2. The subject line is intended to provoke a fear reaction
  3. The subject line is kind of weird, grammatically; are they saying that a “New Document” has been prevented? If “Due to Suspicious Sign-in” modifies the subject of the sentence, which in this case is “New Document,” then…okay, you get it;  it just reads weird.
  4. There is a file attached (the little paperclip icon)

What is supposed to happen with this kind of email is that the victim sees “Suspicious Sign-in” and immediately opens the message, which is most likely blank or contains instructions to open the attached file. Once the victim does that, some form of malicious software, anything from spyware to ransomware, will be installed on their computer.

What actually happens, when the recipient knows some of the warning signs, is that the message is immediately deleted and causes no harm.

Also note that this message slipped past some pretty burly anti-spam and anti-malware software. Those tools are important, but sometimes a dangerous email still makes it through. Stay vigilant!

This is why I don’t use ad-blocking plugins: so I can point out stuff like this

Today I checked out the weather forecast at Weather.com, mostly to confirm my suspicions that yes, this winter is going to be eternal and that it’s never going to rise above four degrees for the rest of my life.

(Okay, the actual forecast wasn’t that bad, and it’s actually going to get a little warmer very soon, but still.)

I noticed this banner ad in the right-side column where Weather.com usually puts them (among other locations):

2014-02-12-junkware

Looks important, don’it? Like your security software is telling you something is wrong, right?

Yeah, well, it’s not. It’s an advertisement. Good thing the ONLY indication is the little Google AdWords logo in the upper right corner, eh?

Now, I don’t know exactly what this advertisement leads to, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re using deception to trick people into clicking on it. That makes me think of ransomware, because it’s almost the exact technique used by makers of that type of malicious software. Click on it and you may find your computer locked down until you pay $80 or more to some crook.

I wish I could issue “just never click on anything” as a general rule, but it’s sort of hard to use the Internet without clicking on something now and then. I would suggest this, though: if you see an ad like this on a major website, click on that little triangle AdWords logo (click carefully…you don’t want to click on the ad itself!) and use the submission form to tell Google about it. Google’s AdWords system is great because it allows access to online advertising for businesses of all sizes, but that wide-openness also means a lot of scammers get their greasy little banner ads through. It’s like those “work at home” scans in the old print newspapers, only a couple hundred million times larger in scope.

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).