I have a boat for sale. The sea is still one of my big passions, but I simply have too little time to use it. So I decided to let it go. I will buy a bigger one later, when and if I have more time. It’s still winter in Finland and all the small boats are on dry land covered by snow. But spring is approaching and the boating fever is spreading. It’s the right time to publish an ad on the net.
Soon I get a mail from a nice young lady. Let’s call her Mrs. Witney De Villiers, as that is what he or she called herself. (Probably a randomly picked false identity, any similarity to real existing persons is purely coincidental.) She was very keen on buying my boat and we had a nice conversation over a couple of days. I did unfortunately not sell the boat, but I got a nice story to tell instead. I will not bother you with all the details, so here’s a shortened version with all the important parts included.
– Hi, I’m in Mexico and I want to buy your boat. How long have you had it? What’s the final price? (Well, I’m in Finland and this is the point where I became more or less convinced that it is a scam.)
– I have had it for five years.
– OK, the price is fine. I want to buy it. Please take down the ad. What’s your PayPal account info so that I can make a payment? I’ll cover the PayPal charges. (Needless to say, the ad remained up.)
– Good news. I can accept wire-transfer which would be a lot cheaper for you than PayPal. (She can’t accept if this is a traditional PayPal scam.)
– Sorry, but I can’t do wire-transfers now. I only have access to PayPal because bla bla blaa …. (Yes, another scam-indicator.)
– OK, I created a PayPal account. Here’s the account info. But there’s some paperwork we need to handle before we proceed. Please fill in the buyer’s part of this attached contract and mail a scanned copy to me. I also need a picture of your photo ID. (The provided PayPal account info was false.)
– Great! I have made the payment. “Check your mail as there should be a confirmation mail from PayPal. I made an extra payment of 3650 € and I’am sure you noticed that, you’ll have to send the extra amount to the Shipping Company through Western Union right away, so that they can come ahead for the pick up and also you should send your address where they have to come for the pick up and also the necessary Western Union Payment Information.” (All the key elements in this very traditional scam becomes visible at this point. This is where you should realize what’s the name of the game, if you haven’t figured it out already. A faked mail from “PayPal” appears in my spam folder.)
– Hold your horses. We need to do the paperwork first. See my previous mail.
– “I want you to know that I have made an arrangement for you to receive the copy of my ID and my other necessary data for the boat. I want you to know that the courier representative coming over for the pick up has all he said documents in an enclosed confidential envelope with him which he will deliver to you in person.”
– Well, we really need to close the deal and have a legally binding agreement before we can arrange for transportation.
– “I understand your concern and certify that all sales is final. Your show of concern has given me a very good fact that you are indeed an honest seller hence, the reason why I am using this medium to confirm to you that all sales is final and I am satisfied with the present condition of the Boat.. so you can now proceed with the western union and get back to the paypal with the western union scan receipt so they can release all the fund into your account immediately..More so, send me a copy of the western union receipt… i look forward to read from you…” (Contract and passport files attached. Oh gosh what a poorly faked British passport!!!)
– Thanks, but you forgot to sign the contract.
– “Oh sorry, I write my name as the signature.. i hope to receive a copy of western union receipt from you today…” (That “signature” was typed, not handwritten.)
– Just want to let you know that I need the SIGNED contract before 3 PM. Otherwise I will not have time to go to the bank. And I’m traveling tomorrow so I will be unable to handle transactions. (To create urgency is a common scammer tactic.😉 )
– “Have signed on the contract.. i wait to read from you with the western union receipt..” (Printed, handwritten and scanned this time. It’s 4 AM in Mexico when this part of the conversation takes place.)
– WTF!!! The bank refused the transaction. The recipient is on some kind of international blacklist, apparently suspected for criminal activities. (Well, I wasn’t completely honest here.)
– “How about you go there and split up the money in to 2 and send on two transaction.”
– I’m certainly NOT going to send any money to a blacklisted company!
– “here is another shipping company info [another private person in US] I wait your story again” (We enter the threatening phase. A while later a mail appears in my spam folder. “PayPal” will take “LEGALACTION” and hand me over to FBI if I don’t pay in 24 h.)
– What are those clowns at PayPal up to now? They talk about some legal action against me even if I haven’t entered into any legally binding agreement to transfer money. Do you have any clue, or maybe I should contact PayPal directly and ask what they think they are doing? (Let’s see how/if they react. Contacting PayPal would reveal the scam instantly.)
Next I got a long mail pointing out how honest this lady is and how keen she is to do business with nice and honest sellers like me. But she can’t unfortunately do anything about the PayPal actions as the purpose of all that is to protect both the seller and buyer. She points out that even a smaller sum would be enough to release the payment into my PayPal account (ok, we are in the bargaining phase). At this point I decided that this blog post is becoming far too long and chose to not respond at all. She didn’t get back to me either. They probably realized that they are not going to get 3650 € from me and gave up.
As you have noticed, I became wary at a pretty early stage. There were several details in this conversation that made me suspicious. 37 to be more precise:
Sounds hilarious, doesn’t it! The scam is so obvious when presented in this way. And forcing the scammer out of the ready-made script makes the act crack up even more. But the sad fact is that people are lured by these guys daily. A lot of this seems to be done in volume so they must be dealing with a significant number of victims every day. Their way to do business very quickly and easily may seem feasible for smaller bulk items, and may not ring the alarm bells in the same way as when dealing with bigger items. Big or small item, it’s always a good idea to take a critical look at the whole case and look for discrepancies like this. Many of the points listed above are on their own enough to spot the scam. Also make sure that they can’t orchestrate the show on their own. Think about what you need to be able to trust the other part, and be persistent about getting what you want. Reluctance to comply is a pretty strong sign that something is fishy.
The core point for anyone who runs into cases like this is however to understand how the scam works. That’s the key to recognizing it in practice. You are promised money but something must be paid before the transaction can be completed. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is basically the same scenario as in the Nigerian scams. The core of the scam is that the money you are to receive is just a promise, but the money you transfer to someone else is real. The PayPal-based scams may be somewhat more effective as many people trust PayPal. It’s not an official bank, but many people think of it as a bank. You may believe that this trusted party is holding the money and securing the transaction. In reality, all you have got is a faked mail. There is no PayPal transaction and the promised money is just numbers written in the mail.
If you fall for the scam and pay, the scammers will vanish like smoke in thin air. PayPal can’t help you as this has nothing with them to do. The scammers have just misused PayPal’s name. And the payment method used to collect your money is always irreversible and provides no security for the sender.
So to summarize. If you ever consider engaging in a transaction with strangers and where money is relayed through you, you should:
What really strikes me is how poorly this false buyer’s role is created. Some simple Google searches is all it takes to reveal the scam. And many discrepancies would have been so easy to fix. Are these guys really “America’s dumbest criminals”?
Maybe, maybe not. The point is probably that you need to be suspicious before you turn to Google. And once there you will find descriptions of this type of scam no matter how well the scammers have tried to eliminate discrepancies in their story. So once you get suspicious, it’s game over for the scammers anyway. The most profitable tactic for them is maybe to run the scam en masse without caring about the details, and just harvest those who won’t get suspicious until it’s too late. Or maybe they’re just stupid and can’t do any better? (Believing that anyone would fall for that fake passport would indicate the latter.)
Well, the boat is still for sale. Anyone interested?
Every time you go online, your personal privacy is at risk – it’s as simple as that. Whether you’re creating an account on a website, shopping, or just browsing, information like your email, IP address and browsing history are potential targets for interested parties. All too often, that information is sold on or sometimes even stolen without you even knowing it. And the threats to our online privacy and security are evolving. Fast. As F-Secure’s Online Protection Service Lead, Christine Bejerasco’s job is to make life online safer and more secure. “We’re basically online defenders. And when your job is to create solutions that help protect people, the criminals and attackers you’re protecting them against always step up their game. So it’s like an arms race. They come up with new ways of attacking users and our job is to outsmart them and defend our users,” Christine says. Sounds pretty dramatic, right? Well that’s because it is. While it used to be that the biggest threat to your online privacy was spam and viruses, the risks of today and tomorrow are potentially way more serious. “Right now we’re in the middle of different waves of ransomware. That’s basically malware that turns people’s files into formats they can’t use. We’ve already seen cases of companies and individual people having their systems and files hijacked for ransom. It’s serious stuff and in many cases very sad. If your online assets aren’t protected right now you should kind of feel like you’re going to bed at night with your front door not only unlocked but wide open.” Christine and her team of 11 online security superheroes (eight full-time members and three super-talented interns) are on the case in Helsinki. Here’s more on Christine and her work in her own words: Where are you from? The Philippines Where do you live and work? I live in Espoo and work at F-Secure in Ruoholahti, Helsinki. Describe your job in 160 characters or less? Online guardian who strives to give F-Secure users a worry-free online experience. One word that best describes your work? Engaging How long is a typical work day for you? There is no typical workday. It ranges from 6 – 13 hours, depending on what’s happening. What sparked your interest in online security? At the start it was just a job. As a computer science graduate, I was just looking for a job where I could do something related to my field. And then when I joined a software security company in the Philippines, I was introduced to this world of online threats and it’s really hard to leave all the excitement behind. So I’ve stayed in the industry ever since. Craziest story you’ve ever heard about online protection breach? Ashley Madison. Some people thought it was just a funny story, but it had pretty serious consequences for some of the people on that list. Does it frustrate you that so many people don’t care about protecting their online privacy? Yeah, it definitely does. But you grow to understand that people don’t value things until they lose it. It’s like insurance. You don’t think about it until something bad happens and then you care. What’s your greatest work achievement? Shaping the online protection service in the Labs from its starting stages to where we are today. What’s your idea of happiness? Road trips and a bottle of really good beer. Which (non-work-related) talent would you most like to have? Hmmm… tough. Maybe, stock-market prediction skills? What are your favorite apps? Things Stumbleupon What blogs do you like? Security blogs (F-Secure Security blog of course and others – too many to list.) Self-Help Blogs (Zen Habits, Marc and Angel, etc.) Who do you admire most? I admire quite a few people for different reasons. Warren Buffett for his intensity, simplicity and generosity. Mikko Hyppönen for his idealism and undying dedication to the online security fight. And Mother Theresa for embodying the true meaning of how being alive is like being in school for your soul. Do you ever, ever go online without protection? Not with systems associated to me personally, or with someone else. But of course, when we are analyzing online threats, then yes. See how to take control of your online privacy – watch the film and hear more from Christine. See how Freedome VPN will keep you protected and get it now.
The Sony hack of late 2014 sent shock waves through Hollywood that rippled out into the rest of the world for months. The ironic hack of the dubious surveillance software company Hacking Team last summer showed no one is immune to a data breach - not even a company that specializes in breaking into systems. After a big hack, some of the first questions asked are how the attacker got in, and whether it could have been prevented. But today we're asking a different question: whether, once the attacker was already in the network, the breach could have been detected. And stopped. Here's why: Advanced attacks like the ones that hit Sony and Hacking Team are carried out by highly skilled attackers who specifically target a certain organization. Preventive measures block the great majority of threats out there, but advanced attackers know how to get around a company's defenses. The better preventive security a company has in place, the harder it will be to get in…but the most highly skilled, highly motivated attackers will still find a way in somehow. That's where detection comes in. Thinking like an attacker If an attacker does get through a company's defensive walls, it's critical to be able detect their presence as early as possible, to limit the damage they can do. There has been no official confirmation of when Sony's actual breach first took place, but some reports say the company had been breached for a year before the attackers froze up Sony's systems and began leaking volumes of juicy info about the studio's inner workings. That's a long time for someone to be roaming around in a network, harvesting data. So how does one detect an attacker inside a network? By thinking like an attacker. And thinking like an attacker requires having a thorough knowledge of how attackers work, to be able to spot their telltale traces and distinguish them from legitimate users. Advanced or APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks differ depending on the situation and the goals of the attacker, but in general their attacks tend to follow a pattern. Once they've chosen a target company and performed reconnaissance to find out more about the company and how to best compromise it, their attacks generally cover the following phases: 1. Gain a foothold. The first step is to infect a machine within the organization. This is typically done by exploiting software vulnerabilities on servers or endpoints, or by using social engineering tactics such as phishing, spear-phishing, watering holes, or man-in-the-middle attacks. 2. Achieve persistence. The initial step must also perform some action that lets the attacker access the system later at will. This means a persistent component that creates a backdoor the attacker can re-enter through later. 3. Perform network reconnaissance. Gather information about the initial compromised system and the whole network to figure out where and how to advance in the network. 4. Lateral movement. Gain access to further systems as needed, depending on what the goal of the attack is. Steps 2-4 are then repeated as needed to gain access to the target data or system. 5. Collect target data. Identify and collect files, credentials, emails, and other forms of intercepted communications. 6. Exfiltrate target data. Copy data to the attackers via network. Steps 5 and 6 can also happen in small increments over time. In some cases these steps are augmented with sabotaging data or systems. 7. Cover tracks. Evidence of what was done and how it was done is easily erased by deleting and modifying logs and file access times. This can happen throughout the attack, not just at the end. For each phase, there are various tactics, techniques and procedures attackers use to accomplish the task as covertly as possible. Combined with an awareness and visibility of what is happening throughout the network, knowledge of these tools and techniques is what will enable companies to detect attackers in their networks and stop them in their tracks. Following the signs Sony may have been breached for a year, but signs of the attack were there all along. Perhaps these signs just weren't being watched for - or perhaps they were missed. The attackers tried to cover their tracks (step 7) with two specific tools that forged logs and file access and creation times - tools that could have been detected as being suspicious. These tools were used throughout the attack, not just at the end, so detection would have happened well before all the damage was done, saving Sony and its executives much embarrassment, difficult PR, lost productivity, and untold millions of dollars. In the case of Hacking Team, the hacker known as Phineas Fisher used a network scanner called nmap, a common network scanning tool, to gather information about the organization’s internal network and figure out how to advance the attack (step 3). Nmap activity on a company internal network should be flagged as a suspicious activity. For moving inside the network, step 4, he used methods based on the built-in Windows management framework, PowerShell, and the well-known tool psexec from SysInternals. These techniques could also potentially have been picked up on from the way they were used that would differ from a legitimate user. These are just a few examples of how a knowledge of how attackers work can be used to detect and stop them. In practice, F-Secure does this with a new service we've just launched called Rapid Detection Service. The service uses a combination of human and machine intelligence to monitor what's going on inside a company network and detect suspicious behavior. Our promise is that once we've detected a breach, we'll alert the company within 30 minutes. They'll find out about it first from us, not from the headlines. One F-Secure analyst sums it up nicely: "The goal is to make it impossible for an attacker to wiggle his way from an initial breach to his eventual goal." After all, breaches do happen. The next step, then, is to be prepared. Photo: Getty Images