Spammers thrive on getting clicks and are continuously looking for legitimate and illegitimate ways to lure in new victims. Tragic events worldwide
are not off limits to cybercriminals, with many capitalizing on these
events in order to profit. The latest AVG Insights Report reveals how
millions of false links were distributed to curious consumers within
hours of fatal incidents in Boston and Waco, and highlights how
consumers can ensure they don’t fall prey to these scams.
Most email users will consider themselves wise to the threat of
spam—hackneyed email subject lines and poor grammar are clear warning
signs—but for spammers it’s a simple numbers game: send enough messages
and someone, somewhere will bite. With the quantity of spam messages
distributed running into the millions, it only takes a handful of
inexperienced or careless people to be caught off guard for the spammers
to be successful. (See also “When malware strikes: How to clean an infected PC.”)
Recent scams rely on tragedy
The AVG team tracked a sudden and significant rise in spam messages that used the Boston Marathon explosions as a lure within 24 hours of the bombings. Then, less than two days later, this cycle was repeated with the Waco fertilizer factory explosion.
In both cases the spammers rapidly created spam campaigns that used
enticing subject lines, such as “BREAKING—Boston Marathon Explosion” and
“CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Fertilizer Plant Explosion Near Waco, Texas.”
Clicking the link in the email takes victims to a webpage containing
malware. Although this may appear to be a legitimate site showing the
promised video, it will contain malicious executable code in the form of
an Exploit Toolkit.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, hundreds of domains relating
to the tragedy were quickly registered with DNS providers, many of which
would have then been used to host malware. It’s a cruel method to
exploit natural human curiosity to make a quick profit.
Major news stories around dramatic or fatal incidents are ideal for
these hackers, especially if they have a strong visual or video angle.
The 9/11 bombings of 2001 gave rise to one of the most significant early
examples of tragedy-focused email spam, but in truth they have been
around almost as long as email has been a mainstream tool.
These days it’s not just email that’s used as an attack vector; a
malicious link is just as likely to turn up within the comments of a
blog or in your social media feed. No matter how they reach you, they’ll
often claim to lead to new or exclusive video footage of an incident,
and it only takes a handful of people to be caught off guard for
criminals to be successful.
While profit is usually the end goal of these scams first “success”
means infecting your computer with Trojan Horse-style malware that will
do one, or both, of the following things: Secretly add your machine as a
botnet “node”—allowing the spammer to use it to serve his or her future
illicit plansSteal personal and financial information, or lock your
computer using “ransomware.”
Timely malware: The silent threat
A botnet can comprise tens of thousands of computers worldwide but few
will show any obvious signs of being infected. The longer the infection
goes undetected, the more valuable the computer becomes to the spammer
who may then rent it on for further gain.
These botnets are used to distribute millions of spam messages that hold
the potential to infect your computer and steal your personal
details—email and social media log-ins are prime targets—or even
financial details such as online banking log-ins. With the botnet ready
and waiting, all the spammers need is a good “lure.”
So how can you make sure you’re spam-safe?
Never click on a suspicious-looking link. Irrespective of whether it’s
from a friend, on a site you visit all the time, or from an unknown
source—ask yourself “Why did I receive this?” If the promise or offer of
the message seems too good to be true, then it almost certainly is.
Be cautious when opening files. If it’s that important and it comes from
a legitimate source, they’ll most likely contact you again. Make sure
your Internet security software is fully up to date and includes a good email scanner.
Also consider using a secure search plugin for your web browser that
scans links to check they’re legitimate before you click on them.