Aussies ignore ISP malware notifications as spam

Phishing and spam fears dampen impact of Australia’s malware clean-up initiative.

ISPs email notifications to customers are being ignored by recipients, in some case because people think it’s spam, according to research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Over 120 ISPs participate in the ACMA-run voluntary Australian Internet Security Initiative (AISI), in which they receive daily emailed updates about likely malware activity associated with a particular IP address in their range. It is then up to the ISP to link the IP address to a specific customer account and then notify the customer, typically by email.

The idea is to encourage customers to address a malware infection, however some customers are “thinking that it was a scam or a hoax”, according to ACMA, which interviewed 24 ISPs for the report.

The research does not cover the proportion of notifications that are treated as spam however all large-sized ISPs and one medium-sized operator reported facing “customer suspicions” when issuing malware notifications.

“Some providers said they found it difficult to prove to customers who they are, and that customers tended ignore emails if they believed they were a hoax,” the report noted.

The report also found that across the board, a “small proportion” of notification recipients responded to the ISP with a phone call, while many ISPs assumed the problem was fixed if that IP address did not appear in subsequent reports. Only some ISPs called customers, while many larger ISPs reported that as being too expensive.

Suspicion towards the notifications may not be surprising, given the prevalence of phishing, spam, and scams that use bogus security warnings to lure victims. Just last week the ACMA supported legal action initiated by the US Federal Trade Commission and Canadian authorities against six Indian-based tech phone support scams that falsely claimed victims’ PCs needed a virus to be removed.

In one instance of a notification, a customer attempted to verify the source of the notification email with the provider, whose support staff misunderstood the enquiry and advised the customer that it could be spam. The issue was resolved only after the customer contacted the ACMA.

Other ISPs reported customers questioning the legality of the ISP obtaining details about their computer, fearing the operator had sniffed or intercepted their traffic.

On the other hand, the customers that did accept the notifications as legitimate were generally unaware they had an infection and were happy to be informed, according to the report. ISPs meanwhile were largely happy with the format of the reports, but wanted additional information, such as port information and the operating system of the computer.

To boost response times, some providers throttled customers’ broadband speeds or put them into an “abuse states” walled garden, however one large sized that reported considering using a walled garden approach said it was too expensive to set up.

Identifying the customer in the first instance was also a challenge, according to the report, in particular for ISPs that allocate IP addresses dynamically to customers.

The difficulty in linking IP addresses to accounts was felt mostly by “medium and large-sized ISPs” and not smaller ISPs, according to ACMA.

A similar challenge existed for businesses and universities that use one IP address across a number of computers.

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