Category Archives: Spam and scams

Avoid Hola’s free VPN service

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, many people have started using VPN services to encrypt their online activities. Until recently, one popular choice was Hola’s free VPN.

Researchers have discovered that Hola is selling access to the resources of its users, creating what has been described as a botnet, which may have been used for malicious activities.

Hola has been scrambling to deal with the public backlash over this news, but so far all they’ve done is retroactively update their FAQ, adding statements about what Hola can do with your computer if you’ve installed their software.

Recommendation: avoid Hola completely. This kind of deceptive behaviour should not be encouraged. If you’ve been using Hola, check your level of exposure using this handy tool.

Test your skill: spot the phishing email

A short quiz, provided by anti-malware software maker McAfee, allows you to test your skill at identifying phishing email.

In the quiz, you are presented with ten email samples, and asked to decide whether they are phishing email.

What is phishing? From Wikipedia: “Phishing is the illegal attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money), often for malicious reasons, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Hint: look for links in each of the sample messages. Hover your mouse over each link, and compare the address with the supposed sender. If a link points to a site that’s unrelated to the supposed sender, the email is probably not legitimate.

Hat tip to reader tap tap.

Google’s efforts to clean up ad injection on the web

A recent post on the Chrome blog discusses Google’s recent efforts to clean up the growing problem of ad injection on the web.

From the post: “Ad injectors are programs that insert new ads, or replace existing ones, into the pages you visit while browsing the web.” If you’re seeing a lot of advertising on all the sites you visit, and much of it seems unrelated to the site, your computer may be running one or more ad injectors.

Ad injectors are unwanted software that is surreptitiously installed on victims’ computers through a variety of tricks, including “marketing, bundling applications with popular downloads, outright malware distribution, and large social advertising campaigns.”

The ad injection ‘ecosystem’ is complex, and at any given time there are thousands of injection campaigns affecting web surfers.

To combat this problem, Google has identified and removed 192 apps – identified as contributing to ad injection systems – from the Chrome Web Store. Improvements in the Chrome Web Store and Chrome itself help to protect against ad injection software. And Google is reaching out to advertising networks, to assist them in eliminating ad injection. Most importantly, Google’s AdWords network policies have been tweaked, to make it more difficult for the perpetrators of ad injection schemes to promote malicious software.

Recent surge in spam likely due to Mumblehard botnet

If you noticed more spam than usual in your inbox in recent months, you’re not alone. You may also have noticed that using your email client to block the sender is typically ineffective. That’s because the spam is coming from thousands of different domains, each corresponding to a different compromised web server.

This is the work of the Mumblehard botnet, which was observed sending mass spam starting about seven months ago by ESet researchers. The Mumblehard code has existed on the web for at least five years, but seems to have started its spamming activities on a large scale only in the last year or so.

Computers infected with Mumblehard are typically Linux web servers. It remains unclear exactly how servers become infected, but researchers suspect that unpatched WordPress and Joomla vulnerabilities provide the key.

CRTC follows through on its efforts to curb spam

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has handed out steep penalties to three organizations for failing to comply with Canada’s new anti-spam regulations.

Up to this point, there has been some doubt as to whether the CRTC and the Competition Bureau would follow through on the promise of the new law. Doubt no more: the worst offender was a Quebec company called Compu-Finder, which received a whopping 1.1 million dollar fine.

It’s not often that I find a reason to praise the CRTC, but this is one of those times. Nice work, folks! Keep it up.

WordPress sites targeted by pro-ISIL hacks

An active campaign pushing the agenda of ISIL is being perpetrated mainly via hacked WordPress sites. The FBI has issued a related warning.

Anyone who runs a WordPress site should immediately ensure that it is up to date with all WordPress and plugin updates. Of course this won’t help if your site has already been hacked, so if you have any doubt, please scan your site with one (or preferably all) of the following web-based site scanners:

Meanwhile, yet another popular WordPress plugin has been found to contain a serious vulnerability. The site caching plugin WP-Super-Cache has a nasty cross-site scripting bug. Anyone using this plugin on a WordPress site needs to update it to the fixed version (1.4.4) immediately.

Reporting hack attempts, phishing and spam

Over the years, I’ve tried to be a good Internet citizen and report abuse (hack attempts, spam, etc.) This can be a daunting task, and the results are often less than satisfactory. For most people, the time wasted on spotting and deleting spam is bad enough; the extra work of reporting spam can seem like a tedious chore.

Reporting abuse can produce wildly varying results. Here are a few examples from my own recent experience:

BT Italy

Over the past couple of months, one of the WordPress sites I manage has seen a steady stream of ‘admin’ login attempts from computers in Italy, most of which connect to the Internet via the ISPs albacom.net and fastweb.it. Literally thousands of different albacom.net and fastweb.it IP addresses were being used in the attacks.

Since the majority of these login attempts were from albacom.net, I initially focused on Albacom. I discovered that most of the devices at the other end of these attacks were Aethra BG1242W ISDN modem/routers. These appear to be the standard modem/router provided by Albacom to their customers. I was horrified to find that I could log into these devices via their web interface. Clearly Albacom’s dedication to security is severely lacking. Of course it’s difficult to know for sure whether the attacks were coming directly from these (presumably hacked) routers, or from (also presumably hacked) computers connected to them.

Apparently, British Telecom (BT Italy) is in the process of acquiring Albacom. This is undoubtedly creating some confusion there, but that’s really no excuse for any of this.

I tried various methods for reporting this to Albacom:

  • sent email to the abuse address on record for albacom.net, but every attempt bounced, saying that the user’s mailbox was full;
  • sent email to the technical contact on record for albacom.net, but this was ignored;
  • tweeted about the problem on the main BT Twitter account, but my tweets were immediately deleted.

This is a terrific example of how not to handle abuse reports. I don’t know what’s going on with BT ITaly, but clearly they are having serious issues.

I also reported this on the Wordfence support forum, to see if anyone else might be seeing this problem. Wordfence is an excellent WordPress security plugin, and it was Wordfence that was detecting (and blocking) these login attempts. Sure enough, several other people reported seeing this problem on their sites.

A few weeks later, the login attempts from Italy stopped – for my own site and for others. Then they started up again for some sites, but luckily not for mine.

SpamCop

I recently signed up at SpamCop.net and started submitting the numerous spam messages I receive daily for one particular address. SpamCop’s submission process analyzes submitted email and makes recommendations about where to report it. Note: you must configure your email client so that you can see the entire message source, including all headers, for this to work.

The submission process is well explained at each stage, and provides useful warnings to the submitter about making sure that the submission is actually spam, and so on. A lot of technical information is displayed with the analysis, but much of that can be hidden if you prefer to concentrate on the basics.

SpamCop uses spam submissions to create a block list, which is used in conjunction with similar lists from other sources, by ISPs and other mail providers, to help filter out spam before it reaches user inboxes.

If you’re willing to put in the effort, I highly recommend signing up.

Moonfruit

A few days ago, I received this (admittedly very lame) phishing attempt in my inbox:

Your mailbox is full of, 00.1 GB, Please reduce your mailbox size.
Delete any items you don't need from your mailbox and expand your
email quota (size) with the below web links: CLICK HERE
http://REMOVED.moonfruit.com/
Thank you for your understanding.
©2015 Helpdesk

I went to the site in question (with NoScript enabled and blocking all scripts) and confirmed that this was indeed an attempt to con me into entering private information into a form.

A bit of searching revealed that Moonfruit is a web-based service that allows clients to set up web sites with minimal effort. It’s a totally legitimate company. Customer web sites hosted by Moonfruit have URLs like this: whatever.moonfruit.com. Whoever set up the phishing site just happened to use Moonfruit as the host.

So I decided to try reporting this to Moonfruit support. I easily found the contact page on their web site and submitted a general query about the phishing attempt, including the text of the email. I wasn’t sure this would amount to anything, especially since I’m not a Moonfruit customer. I immediately received a confirmation of my submission, and was then delighted to receive the following response from Moonfruit, within an hour of my submission:

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
We have closed the site and the associated accounts, and banned the user.

Now THAT’S how you deal with abuse reports. Nice work, Moonfruit!

Google beefs up protection against unwanted software

A recent post on Google’s Online Security Blog describes security improvements to the Chrome browser, Google’s search engine, and Google’s advertising platform. The changes should make it easier for users to stay away from web sites known to contain unwanted (and presumed harmful) software.

Chrome now detects when you are about to visit a web site known to contain unwanted software, and displays a large red warning message.

Google’s search engine now decreases ranking for sites known to contain unwanted software. That means these kinds of sites should be less likely to appear in the first few pages of Google search results.

Google now checks all advertisements provided by its AdWords system, and disables any with links to sites with unwanted software. Additional details are available on Google’s Advertising Policies site. Google’s primary source of income is AdWords, so it’s comforting to see that they’re willing to take a financial hit (however small) to protect users.

Tax-related scam emails appearing

I just received email purporting to be from Revenue Canada, telling me that I have overpaid my taxes in recent years, and urging me to claim my refund by clicking on a link.

The link actually goes to a Cloudflare-hosted web site, epathchina(.com). The site has nothing to do with Revenue Canada, and exists to trick unsuspecting people into divulging private/financial information to the site’s operators.

Currently, the site shows nothing untoward in Sucuri site check: it’s not on any blacklists and malware scans show nothing. But that’s likely to change.

With tax time nearing, we should expect email like this to appear in our inboxes. As a general rule, it’s a bad idea to click links in email. Of course, if you’re certain the source is legitimate, the risk is far less, but it’s still possible that the ‘legitimate’ source has been compromised. In this particular case, a much safer approach is to simply go to the Canada Revenue web site and log in.

Clues that this was a scam email:

  • The Return-Path address (refund AT server.whitetails.com) is unrelated to Revenue Canada.
  • The From address is to a domain that appears to be related to Revenue Canada (craarc.gc.ca), but doesn’t actually exist, as confirmed by any IP checking service like WhatMyIP.
  • Like most effective cons, it offers money for nothing.
  • The recipient is urged to act quickly.
  • The message is poorly formatted.
  • The recipient is instructed not to contact Revenue Canada by telephone.

Recommendations: configure your email client to display email in plain text format and display all headers. This will make your inbox less entertaining, but a lot safer, since it will much easier to spot suspicious links and headers.

Here’s the body of the email:

Dear Applicant:

Following an upgrade of our computer systems and review of our records we
have investigated your payments and latest tax returns over the last seven
years our calculations show you have made over payments of 226.99 CAD

Due to the high volume of refunds due you must complete the on line application,
the telephone help line is unable to assist with this application.

To access the form for your tax refund,please click here
Your refund may take up to 3 weeks to process please make sure you complete the form correctly.
As we are upgrading our records we require the completed form showing your full current details by 10 February 2015
Please complete the form to confirm the refund.
A. B. Marions
Senior Manager
Canada Revenue Agency

————————————————————–
© Copyright 2015, Canada Revenue Agency All rights reserved.
TAX REFUND ID: XXXXXXXXXXXXX

Brian Krebs recently reported on another tax-related scam affecting Americans, in which stolen credentials are used to post fraudulent tax returns.