Beware of mobile phone scams

2620808649_ebea8d9b07_zArriving at the Frankfurt airport late in the evening. The flight was almost on schedule so I have some 30 minutes left before the final leg to Helsinki. A nice opportunity to check my mail and the latest headlines. What a blessing with free WiFi on the airports! And Frankfurt is no exception; the “open network available” -indicator is on when I grab the phone. And there we have the welcome-screen that pops up in the browser. But wait a minute, this one looks different. “Please fill in your mobile phone number and select your country. We will send you an SMS with details about how to log into the wireless network.”

Stop! You should always stop and think when an unknown website asks for your mobile phone number (well, actually when asked for any kind of personal information). Knowing your number is the key prerequisite for someone who want to scam you with premium rate text messages. Ask yourself the following questions when you encounter a page like this:

  • In what way do I benefit from giving my phone number to this organization? Do they have a valid reason to reach me by phone?
  • Do I know this organization and is it trustworthy? Do I even know what organization I am dealing with?
  • Am I accepting legal terms when submitting my number? Have I read them and did I understand them?
  • Do I need to participate at all? Can I live without the opportunity to win an iPod, or whatever they offer me?

Most people already know that one should be careful when entering mail addresses at fishy websites. Your junk mail folder may start to fill up much faster than before. But what about your mobile phone number? It’s easy to forget that the mobile number is a key to a billing system. It can be a lot more harmful if it gets in the wrong hands. You may get an unpleasant surprise in the next phone bill.

How does the scam work? Someone puts up a web page where you can sign up for anything that sounds interesting. A lottery is a typical example. Your phone number is required as part of your personal information. And you are of course keen to get it right as you want to make sure they can reach you if you win. There’s also the usual checkbox indicating that you accept the terms, but who cares about those legal details?

Well, you should care. Somewhere deep down in the terms there is a paragraph where you agree to receive informational text messages, or whatever they are called, for a price that can be several Euros each. Yes, that’s right. The billing system of our mobile phones supports messages that are paid by the recipient. This scheme is not even illegal as you have agreed to receive them. And needless to say, the sender is impossible to reach if you change your mind and want to terminate the agreement.

You should leave out your phone number or steer clear of the site if you have any doubts about it. If the organization isn’t trusted, but you still feel that you really have to participate, get familiar with the legal terms. Yes, I really mean reading them!

Another variant of the scam is to send you an unexpected text message that invites you to a quiz, a lottery or something else. Responding to the message means in practice that you sign up to the scam.

So what about Frankfurt? Well, the page asking for my phone number was pretty nicely designed. It looked legit. But there was a legal document that users must accept. So I decided to not use the network. It’s much nicer to spend the remaining 20 minutes before departure reading a good book about sailing in the Mediterranean than reading legal terms.


PS. I’m of course not claiming that the Frankfurt network login is a scam. The point is that I can’t know for sure, and I don’t have to take the risk as the benefit I could have gained was very small.

Photo by whiteafrican @ Flickr

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Why are Android bugs so serious?

Yet another big vulnerability in the headlines. The Metaphor hack was discovered by Israel-based NorthBit and can be used to take control over almost any Android device. The vulnerability can be exploited from video files that people encounter when surfing the web. It affects all versions of Android except version 6, which is the latest major version also known as Marshmallow. But why is this such a big deal? Severe vulnerabilities are found all the time and we receive updates and patches to fix them. A fast update process is as a matter of fact a cyber security cornerstone. What makes this issue severe is that it affects Android, which to a large extent lack this cornerstone. Android devices are usually not upgraded to new major versions. Google is patching vulnerabilities, but these patches’ path to the devices is long and winding. Different vendors’ practices for patching varies a lot, and many devices will never receive any. This is really a big issue as Android’s smartphone market share is about 85% and growing! How is this possible? This underlines one of the fundamental differences between the Android and iOS ecosystems. Apple’s products are planned more like the computers we are used to. They are investments and will be maintained after purchase. iOS devices receive updates, and even major system upgrades, automatically and free of charge. And most users do install them. Great for the security. Android is a different cup of tea. These devices are mostly aimed at a cheaper market segment. They are built as consumables that will be replaced quite frequently. This is no doubt a reasonable and cost-saving strategy for the vendors. They can focus on making software work on the currently shipping devices and forget about legacy models. It helps keeping the price-point down. This leads to a situation where only 2,3% of the Android users are running Marshmallow, even half a year after release. The contrast against iOS is huge. iOS 9 has been on the market about the same time and already covers 79% of the user base. Apple reported a 50% coverage just five days after release! The Android strategy backfires when bugs like Metaphor are discovered. A swift and compete patch roll-out is the only viable response, but this is not available to all. This leaves many users with two bad options, to replace the phone or to take a risk and keep using the old one. Not good. One could think that this model is disappearing as we all grow more and more aware of the cyber threats. Nope, development actually goes in the opposite direction. Small connected devices, IoT-devices, are slowly creeping into our homes and lives. And the maintenance model for these is pretty much the same as for Android. They are cheap. They are not expected to last long, and the technology is developing so fast that you would be likely to replace them anyway even if they were built to last. And on top of that, their vendors are usually more experienced in developing hardware than software. All that together makes the IoT-revolution pretty scary. Even if IoT-hacking isn’t one of the ordinary citizen’s main concerns yet. So let’s once again repeat the tree fundamental commands for being secure on-line. Use common sense, keep your device patched and use a suitable security product. If you have a system that provides regular patches and updates, keep in mind that it is a valuable service that helps keeping you safe. But it is also worth pointing out that nothing as black and white. There are unfortunately also problematic update scenarios.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by etnyk under CC

March 18, 2016
going back in time with macro malware

Hack to the Future: The Return of Macro Malware

We who write stuff in the security industry are used to dashing off sentences like, “Online attacks are becoming more and more advanced” or “Malware is continually evolving in sophistication.” But in the past year we experienced a surprising throwback to one type of malware from an earlier era. Malware that uses a rather old technique, but it’s causing plenty of trouble nonetheless. It kinda feels like we've gone back in time. I’m talking about macro malware. It’s something we hadn’t seen prominently since the early 2000’s. And now, as touched on in our just released Threat Report covering the 2015 threat landscape, it has reared its head again. What is macro malware? Macro malware takes advantage of the macro feature in Office documents to execute commands. And macros are simply shortcuts the user can create for repeated tasks. For example, let’s say you are creating a document in Word and you find yourself repeatedly editing text to be red with a yellow highlight, 16 point, italic and right aligned. To save time, you can create a macro of your commands and then whenever you need that kind of style, simply run the macro. A little history Macro malware was common back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The first macro malware, Concept, was discovered in 1995, although it was basically harmless, simply displaying a dialogue box. In 1999, one of the most notorious macro malware, Melissa, was discovered. Melissa emailed itself to 50 addresses in the user’s address book, spreading to 20% of the world’s computers. But macro malware wouldn’t last long. When Microsoft released Word 2003, the default security settings were changed to stop macros from automatically running when a document opened. This made it more difficult to infect a computer through macros and attackers mostly dropped them to focus on other methods. So what happened? Why is it back again? The re-emergence, according to Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor in F-Secure Labs, may be correlated with the decline of exploitable vulnerabilities due to security improvements in today’s common software applications like Microsoft Office. Exploits have been one of the most common ways to infect machines in recent years, but with fewer software holes to exploit, malware authors seem to be reverting to other tricks. How it’s successful Today’s macro malware attempts to get around Microsoft’s default settings with a simple trick. When a document is opened, the information inside doesn’t appear properly to the viewer – for example, sometimes the document looks like scrambled gobbledygook. Text in the document claims that macros, or content, must be enabled for proper viewing. Here’s one example: Curiosity? Just plain unaware? Whatever the reason, as Sean says, the malware’s reappearance has been successful because “People click.” Once macros have been enabled, the malicious macro code is executed – which then downloads the payload. Macro malware is used by crypto-ransomware families like Cryptowall and the newest threat Locky. These families encrypt the data on a computer and then demand payment to unencrypt it. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible it was macro malware that was used in the holding of a Hollywood hospital for ransom last month. The banking Trojan Dridex, which allows attackers to steal banking credentials and other personal info from infected machines, also uses the technique. How to avoid it Fortunately, if you use security from F-Secure, you’re protected from these threats. But aside from that, the old advice still holds: Be wary of email attachments from senders you don’t know. And take care not to enable macros on documents you’ve received from sources you’re not 100% sure of.   "Back to the Future" banner image courtesy of Garry Knight,

March 15, 2016
travel pics

What bloggers need to know about cyber security

So you sit down at a coffee shop in Thailand or Belgium or São Paulo to upload your photos for you next post. You coffee is properly sugared and milked and your tablet passcode is entered.Now you've got the Wi-Fi network selected and you're heading into your Gmail. Before you get halfway into your coffee, someone has stolen your Amazon credentials, reset your password and ordered some Happy Socks using your credit card. You’ve been hacked and you’re lucky.  As a travel blogger, your blog is your business. If you’d logged in, your precious photos and the site you’ve spent years building up could have been trashed or infected with malware. All a criminal would need is your username and password—and if your password is weak enough, your username is all that’s needed to take over your site. In the worst case scenario, the banking credentials lingering in your browser could be used to access your account. Anyone who gets online – especially through public Wi-Fi – has to take basic precautions when it comes to security. But bloggers have more at risk than most of us. That’s why we invited about a dozen of the best local travel bloggers we could find to F-Secure headquarters to demonstrate how easy it is to be hacked, if you don’t take basic precautions. After our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen explained how easy it is for “white hat” or good guy hackers poke around in the computers of banks and cars, Anssi from the F-Secure labs demonstrated how easy it was to hack from a Gmail account to free Happy Socks on me as I used a tablet. You could see in the bloggers eyes the realization of how many times they could have been hacked and all of the information their browser could expose about them. And when they learned about the growing threat of ransomware, which could take all of their precious media hostage, I thought some of them might faint. To put them on the right track, we emphasized the importance of strong passwords, running updated system and security software like SAFE and using a VPN like Freedome every time they connect to an open network. Do you really want to do your banking over open Wi-Fi in thousands of miles away from home without protection? It’s a message we hope they’ll spread – along with their beautiful photographs and unique travel advice.

March 13, 2016