Holiday greetings from cyberthieves

    Online scam artists send e-cards to get unsuspecting users to click on links, disclose personal information, and download potentially dangerous software

    By Eric Benderoff
    Tribune staff reporter
    Published November 26, 2006

    `Tis the season to start receiving greeting cards, and a growing number of them, conveniently, will come via the Internet.

    There's only one problem: Some of the e-mails saying that you have an e-greeting card from a friend or family member may instead be from a scam artist intent on obtaining your Social Security number, credit card data or even brokerage account information.

    "People like receiving greeting cards this time of year, and they are likely to click on these greetings" if they are in their e-mail inbox, said Stu Elefant, senior product manager for McAfee Inc., an Internet security firm that markets products that detect unsafe Web sites or e-mail. "There is more cybercrime because peoples' defenses are down. They are in a more trusting mood, thanks to the holidays, and they are looking online for bargains."

    That is an irresistible mix for increasingly clever cybercrooks as they realize more people than ever will shop online this holiday season, as well as seek to save postage--and time--by e-mailing holiday greeting cards.

    Online shopping is already off to a fast start.

    "Online sales are up 23 percent, about $6.35 billion, so far this year versus a year ago," said Gian Fulgoni, the Chicago-based chairman of ComScore Networks Inc., which tracks Web activity. His figures are from Nov. 1-19 and will be updated Sunday to reflect this weekend's frenzied shopping.

    Holiday cybershopping will steadily increase over the next few weeks, with Monday slated as one of the busiest Internet shopping days during the holiday period as people use downtime at work to shop online.

    Overall, Fulgoni estimates that $24 billion will be spent online this year during November and December, which should account for about 7 percent of all retail activity.

    "That's probably up a full percentage point over last year," he said.

    Indeed, more people than ever are comfortable shopping online these days, with 91 percent of adults saying they use the Web to shop, according to a survey released Friday from Harris Interactive and Check Point Software Technologies.

    But as more people turn to the Internet for at least some of their holiday purchases--or simply for comparison shopping--more crooks, too, are tracking their movements.

    The average loss per "phishing" scam grew from $257 in 2005 to $1,244 in 2006, according to a November report from Internet research firm Gartner Inc. Losses stemming from such attacks reached more than $2.8 billion this year, Gartner found.

    In Australia , a scam was uncovered in late October by Exploit Prevention Labs that was perpetrated through e-greeting cards. According to a TechNewsWorld story, accounts at nearly every Australian bank were affected when a major cybercrime group used fake Yahoo greeting cards to infect computers with malicious software that tracked keystrokes on PCs. This so-called "keylogger" software was used to steal credit card numbers, bank account user names and passwords.

    Yahoo did not return messages Friday for comment.

    Researchers with Exploit Prevention Labs added that the e-card spammers were also targeting computer users in North America , according to TechNewsWorld.

    Indeed, since early fall, numerous computer users across the U.S. and in Chicago have noted a marked increase in e-card-based spam e-mail. The subject line typically reads, "You've received a greeting from a family member" or "You've received an animated postcard."

    The text inside these "phishing" e-mail messages asks people to "click here" to see the card. Phishing scams are an attempt to trick people into revealing personal information. If they click on these links, they could unwittingly be downloading software that could be used to separate users from their hard-earned holiday bonuses.

    Elefant warns people to exercise extreme caution when e-greeting cards enter your inbox and to open messages only from people you know. If you have any doubt, he warned, don't open the message.

    The number of e-greetings sent this time of year typically doubles compared with the rest of the year. In October, for instance, visits to sites managed by American Greetings, where there are e-cards for holidays or birthdays, increased 66 percent over September, according to ComScore figures. That was the second-highest traffic increase for any Web site in October, ComScore reported.

    Crooks are exploiting what security professionals like to call "social engineering," Elefant said. Because humans are social beings, they're more likely to open an e-mail they think is from a friend or family member than something unfamiliar.

    "Social engineering is more prevalent this time of year because people want to click on an Internet greeting card or get a better deal at a store online. So it's more prevalent this time of year, and this year it's more prevalent than anytime it's ever been."

    People also are helping the crooks more than before.

    The growth of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and even YouTube are helping cybercriminals target computer users.

    "There's more personal information about people online at these sites," Elefant said. At YouTube, for instance, many people who post videos also include a picture of themselves along with other personal information, such as an e-mail address.

    A crook may then send a message to that user and write, "Hey, I saw your video at YouTube about skateboarding. If you want a new skateboard, come check out the deals at my site."

    Elefant said this is a common technique used by sexual predators but increasingly is being used for financial scams.

    Another reason for the online crime wave, according to the Harris survey, is that few people adequately secure their computers. The survey found that 74 percent of people do not install a hardware firewall and 53 percent don't use a software firewall. Only 22 percent have installed a proper suite of security software, according to the survey.
     

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