Timely malware: How spammers turn a profit from our misfortune

Scammers use world disasters to lure you into clicking links to malware

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 capitalising 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.

See also: Security Advisor

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.

The AVG team in Brno tracked a sudden and significant rise in spam messages, which 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: Fertiliser 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 againMake 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

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