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Symantec Spam Report: Hacked Personal Email Accounts Used to Scam Contacts

July 29, 2008

Summary

Imagine that someone hijacked your personal Webmail account without your knowledge. Now imagine that this person pretends to be you and begins sending emails requesting financial assistance to everyone on your contact list.

Introduction

Imagine that someone hijacked your personal Webmail account without your knowledge. Now imagine that this person pretends to be you and begins sending emails requesting financial assistance to everyone on your contact list. Finally, imagine that these emails urge recipients to respond via email only.
You can stop imagining. This was the exact situation Symantec researchers encountered in the course of preparing the latest State of Spam Report. Each month, Symantec's State of Spam Report highlights major spam events or trends observed during the previous month.
In the case described above, a friend picked up the telephone anyway and alerted the real account owner to the scam. The owner immediately contacted the Webmail service provider to get his account access back. As it turned out, this proved harder than expected because the scammer had already changed account details such as password, address, and secret question.
Nor did the scammer stop there. Once he had access to the email account, the scammer arranged for the owner's online auction site password to be emailed to the account. He then proceeded to bid on a number of laptops, instructing that they be sent to Nigeria.
"Hacking personal email accounts, taking advantage of tragedies, generating bogus news events – spammers' tactics are dynamic and changing quickly," says Dermot Harnett, Principal Analyst for Symantec's Antispam Engineering Team. "That's why it's so important for everyone to stay educated."
Harnett emphasized that the above scam wasn't an isolated incident, and that Symantec researchers have seen similar attacks on users of a variety of Webmail providers.
Continue reading to learn more about the latest spam trends and what you can do to help protect your business from the spam menace.

So much for predictions

The July State of Spam Report opens with a quote from Bill Gates, who in 2004 declared: "Two years from now, spam will be solved."
Not quite. In 2006, the year Gates expected the problem of unsolicited email to be solved, spam accounted for 56% of all email. Today, spam represents a staggering 80% of all email.
"So even someone as knowledgeable as Bill Gates got it wrong," Harnett observes. "At the end of the day, people have to realize that spam is all about economics. As long as you can make money from it, spam will continue."
Harnett says that antispam filters may have become more sophisticated, and certain spam threats burst on the scene only to fizzle out soon after, but one thing hasn't changed: spammers aren't giving up the fight.
Other trends identified by Symantec researchers in the latest report:
  • Lottery scams related to the Olympics. Messages claiming to originate from the Beijing Olympic committee were observed in June. These fraudulent messages purported to declare the winners of the lottery for an Olympic promotion. An attachment informs the recipient that he or she has won a lottery from randomly selected email addresses. To claim the prize, the user must contact the courier company via email. Personal information is also requested. "Remember: spammers will latch onto any event that can entice recipients to open an email," Harnett says.
  • Simplified "harvesting" techniques. Throughout June, Symantec researchers observed spammers simplifying their email harvesting techniques, with offers such as, "Do you want to buy any stuff: any kind of pills, oem software, cool porn? Just mail me back, i'll find the best offer for you."
  • China earthquake tragedy used to spread viruses. The subject line of these emails appears as a news headline, hoping to entice readers to open the email. In some cases, the subject line informed users that the China Olympic Games were threatened because of the recent earthquake–another example of current events being used to drive spam attacks. In other cases, the email urges recipients to click a link to play a video. The video then opens an executable file, which has been detected as Trojan.Peacom.D by Symantec antivirus software.
  • Spam targeting Japanese mobile market. While spam targeting mobile devices isn't new, it gained increased prominence in June. For example, spam promoting a Japanese adult dating service provided a link for mobile users to access. An interesting feature of this URL page is that it was specifically designed to be more visible on a small screen.
  • Bogus news events. This is a perennial favorite with spammers. Among the bogus news headlines observed recently: "White House hit by lightning, catches fire," "Latest! Obama quits presidential race," "Oprah found sleeping in the streets."
  • Evolving tactics. Throughout June, Symantec researchers also observed that, as security companies and the Internet community pay more attention to the reputation of Web sites and email senders, spammers continue to hide behind well-established and reputable brands.

Stemming the tide

While there are no foolproof ways to completely eradicate spam, there are steps you can take to significantly reduce the amount of junk mail you receive.
  • Block it. Make sure your PC is protected by antispam software that automatically filters out annoying, dangerous, or fraudulent emails from your inbox.
  • Check in with your ISP. Does your Internet service provider filter your emails? If it doesn't, find one that does. Also, report any spam you receive to your ISP provider. (You can also report it to Symantec, at piracy@symantec.com, or even to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov.)
  • Protect your email address. Some companies, even reputable ones, will sell your email address to spammers for cash. Make sure to carefully read a company's privacy policy before giving out your address.
  • Hide your address. Spammers regularly scour the Internet to locate email addresses on Web sites and will easily find yours. You can hide your address with code or in an image, so that spam bots won't be able to recognize it. (For instance, instead of John_Doe@company.com, publish the email address as John Doe[at sign]company.com.)
  • Make it unique. Spammers use so-called dictionary attacks to sort through possible name combinations at large ISPs and email services, hoping to find a valid address. Research shows that email addresses containing numbers and symbols are more difficult to guess and thus receive less spam.
  • Don't respond to suspicious emails. Any sort of response only confirms your email address and may result in more junk mail. Also avoid clicking on suspicious links.

Conclusion

According to the latest State of Spam Report, 80% of all email today is spam, placing a significant strain on your network, budget, and employee productivity. Symantec's objective is to leverage mail security intelligence from its Global Intelligence Network to help protect your business from this growing threat. To learn more, download the July State of Spam Report today. The next State of Spam Report is scheduled to be released the first week of August.

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