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Just Say No – Phishing – Spam & Spyware

I find it amusing to read a prediction that identity cards will become universal by 2009, not simply as a measure against fraud, identity theft or the threat of terrorism but to defend us against Spam. It’s being suggested, that any email not linked to a digital identity will be ignored.

Ironically, news appeared, last week that Microsoft, whose popular Hotmail service has been synonymous with spam, until it was aggressively cleaned-up, last year, has now contracted for a service that allows e-mail from so-called ‘legitimate’ companies to more easily reach people's inboxes. Of course what counts as fair-play marketing on one side of the Atlantic isn’t viewed as quite the same on the other. After all, American football doesn’t have an offside rule and ‘sacking the quarterback’ is the best parallel I can find to describe what happens when a US marketing company captures your email address.

Allowing ‘legitimate’ email through spam filters – following the deposit of a $20,000 bond - may sound like a good idea but I very much doubt it will have any direct impact on the greater spam problem, which is steadily creeping into an unholy alliance with organised crime, as illustrated by the escalating number of phishing attacks in the first four months of this year. A new study from Gartner has found that such online scams, which use e-mail messages and Web pages designed to look like correspondence from legitimate online businesses and frequently banks, are successfully tricking online consumers into divulging sensitive information to criminals and I’m now so wary of spoofed URLs that if I can’t log into my bank first time around, I will physically unload the browser before a second attempt to avoid any chance of my password details being captured.

In a US study, of five thousand adults, Gartner found that a relatively low number of respondents, around three percent, reported being caught by a phishing exploit but if this figure is extrapolated, then as many as thirty million people may have experienced a phishing attack and almost two million American adults could have become victims of the ‘Phisher Kings’.

Netcraft reports that the rise of phishing has followed a trajectory that is remarkably similar to that of spam. Like spam, phishing in the early days was a relatively rare annoyance, but has recently begun growing to epidemic proportions: phishing attacks jumped 43 percent in March with over four hundred unique scams. It also points out that the technical virtuosity of this scam is an indication of how fast this field is evolving and that the form of this intricate, low-level attack presupposes a machine running Windows and its default applications. In other words, it depends on the popularity of Microsoft.

Only last week, Computer Weekly reported that the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit had arrested twelve eastern Europeans suspected of laundering funds obtained from the victims through phishing. Using advertisements in newspapers and often posing as charities, criminal gangs are now actively seeking to recruit internet users, in the UK to launder money stolen from online bank accounts of victims who have been duped into handing over their account details.

If the growing threat and irritation from spam and phishing isn’t bad enough, Spyware comes pretty close. Last week I downloaded Spybot, a shareware spy program killer from the Web and discovered that even my heavily protected PC was riddled with little spy applications, following my interests, habits and probably much more. Take my advice, just say ‘No’ to spyware and follow my example. Wipe it off your system today.


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