A “spoofing” scare, and a bit of “scambaiting”

19 Dec

December 19, 2011

By Geoff Meeker

This week, I planned to talk some more about online scams. And then, strangely enough, on the morning I sat down to write this column, I was nailed by the scariest virus attack ever.

On a day when there would normally be three or four messages in my inbox, I received more than a thousand – all “Undeliverable email” notices (like you get after entering a non-existent or dead email address). At first, I assumed I had received multiple copies of the same message. But closer inspection showed that every message was going to a different address. Every email was different and unique, and the bounce-backs were coming from Internet service providers the world over.

And they all originated from my email address.

I was just about sick to my stomach. It seemed pretty clear that my computer was hosting a virus, which was now sending out thousands of spam messages. How it could have happened I had no idea, as I’m usually very careful with the links I click and files I open.

Then, my email shut down completely. A message from Bell Aliant said the account was frozen. That was probably a good idea.

Worried that an interloper might have access to my computer, I shut it down and called tech support. I spent an hour on the phone, asking and answering questions, and then they promised to have an “Internet security specialist” look into it and call me back.

When he did, several hours later, the news was good. There had been several reports of spam email over the last day or so. They tracked down the source of the offending emails, and it was not from my computer at all.

“This week’s strain of whatever virus is going seems to be spoofing valid email addresses,” the specialist said. “In this case, the virus was on somebody’s computer in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and it was sending out email from Geoff Meeker as well as another valid Bell Aliant address. There were something like 20,000 messages sent out in two hours from this computer, which we quickly put a stop to.”

He explained that “spoofing” is quite common. “Sometimes, you will get emails bouncing back to your in-box, returns from invalid email addresses that you never sent. That’s because someone sent the messages from somewhere in Timbuktu but spoofed your address, so the bounce-backs go to you.”

I was just relieved to learn that my computer was clean, and it wasn’t my fault.

One tip: If this ever happens to you – a sudden flood of returned emails from addresses you don’t recognize – check your sent messages folder. If it looks normal, with no unusual outgoing messages, chances are you’ve been spoofed. However, if there are sent messages you don’t recognize, then your computer is the source. Get tech help immediately.

To read more on this subject, go to: http://www.cert.org/tech_tips/email_spoofing.html

BAITING THE SCAMMERS

I received a call two weeks ago, from what sounded like an overseas call centre, advising me that my computer “has unloaded some junks and infected files from the Internet which is very harmful to your computer. Being the services centre, we can help you, sir, to get rid of this junk and infected files.”

Normally, I would hang up – a relative of mine was taken by this same scam not too long ago. But I decided to indulge in a bit of “scambaiting.” I asked what I should do.

“I am going to guide you and show you all those junk files… To resolve the issues, we have to gain access to your computer.” (And, no doubt, get my credit card number to pay for the service, as well as plunder my hard drive for whatever he could find.)

I asked how he could possibly know that my computer is infected. “Because, sir, your Windows operating system has generated an error report to us.”

I asked who “us” was. He said, “the service centre for Windows OS in Ontario.”

“It sounds like a scam to me,” I replied.

“Can you give me one single reason why you think this is a scam, sir?”

I replied that there had been numerous fraud warnings from police about precisely this kind of call.

“So how are we going to fix the issues, sir?”

When I replied that we weren’t, he said I could take my chances with the police, wished me a nice day, and hung up.

By “scambaiting” the caller, even for three minutes, I was wasting his time and resources. The theory is, every moment wasted on me is less time spent victimizing someone else, and there is a scambaiting movement out there, devoted to frustrating the fraudsters. And for the record, I don’t suggest that you try scambaiting – my advice is to hang up immediately. However, you can live vicariously through those who do indulge, and have taken scambaiting to some rather shocking and amusing lengths.

Check it out, at http://www.419eater.com.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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