I rarely read the spam that comes my way, but every once in awhile, I'll look at a few of them, just out of morbid curiosity. I don't click on links, of course.
And something struck me about the most recent email that has offered to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. It was familiar enough. It came from some poor lady in South Africa whose rich husband was murdered by some political thugs, and if only I could let her wire all of that money of hers into my bank account for her to get later, I'd get a cut of her $12 million. Something like that. I didn't look at it for long. But what jumped out at me was how this woman said she had reached me:
I got your contact through network online hence decided to write you.
Sure, the sentence construction is poor, but the two words that caught my attention were, "Network online." Obviously, this spammer is thinking of Facebook, MySpace or some other online network. At least I assume so. And it just made me think that as unsophisticated as this letter was, it was slightly more sophisticated than in the past, where I would receive these letters from people who didn't really explain how they found me.
And while it may seem like nobody should be falling for this sort of thing in 2008, in 2007, $3.2 billion dollars were lost to these sorts of emails -- phishing -- in the United States.
So for the heck of it, I thought I'd do a little quick research and see what new techniques spammers are using lately.
Disguising spam as news stories. There have been several reports lately (here's one and another) from various corners of the media, discussing the spam emails coming into e-mailboxes, containing some garish headline and a link. Like offering the name of a famous sitcom star and saying he was found dead in his apartment, or mentioning the name of a famous starlet and saying she's pregnant. Click on the link to the headline to read more and then presumably your hard drive is wiped out (journalists reporting this have been, for some reason, reluctant to actually test the link to see if their computer hard drive will die).
Sending spam posing as from the office of a well-known person. Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had to email residents to let them know that emails that appeared to be from his office, weren't. The emails said that they were being sent to inform the computer user that "your transaction with the United Nations concerning your package that is on hold now is a legitimate transaction and you must try and see you provide all that is [sic] been requested for the security of this great country." I'm assuming shortly before or after an email is sent telling the reader to click onto a United Nations web site and then, as far as your computer or bank account is concerned, it's good-bye, Charlie.
Sending spam posing as from the office of a well-known organization. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently warned New Yorkers that spammers pretending to be the IRS have been telling recipients to download an IRS report. Download it, and your hard drive will be hijacked, and so will any personal information on it.
Spam individually targeted to you. It's called spear phishing, and, boy, is this creepy. Some insidious spammers will send, say, 10 emails to people in a company. An email that looks like it's from their own business will ask them to click on a link and input their banking information because there's been a problem with payroll or what have you. It's harder, much harder, to counter something like that.
Spam text messages. Some of the more sophisticated thieves are, yes, using text messaging to do their evil bidding.
Spam by phone. Sure it's old-fashioned, but it's worked this long. Criminals continue to try and scam people out of their hard-earned dollars by telephone. Last month, students at the University of New Mexico were receiving phone calls from people purporting to work for the UNM Financial Aid office and asking for personal information. It bears repeating, even if it's painfully obvious, that you should never give any financial information over the phone to anyone, even if they sound convincing.
Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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