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?
Ordinary people here in Finland have been confronted with yet another cybersecurity acronym lately, DoS. And this does not mean that retro-minded people are converting back to the pre-Windows operating system MS-DOS that we used in the eighties. Today DoS stands for Denial of Service. This case started on New Year’s Eve when customers of the OP-Pohjola bank experienced problems withdrawing cash from ATMs and accessing the on-line bank. The problems have now continued with varying severity for almost a week. What happens behind the scene is that someone is controlling a large number of computers. All these computers are instructed to bombard the target system with network traffic. This creates an overload situation that prevents ordinary customers from accessing the system. It’s like a massive cyber traffic jam. The involved computers are probably ordinary home computes infected with malware. Modern malware is versatile and can be used for varying purposes, like stealing your credit card number or participating in DoS-attacks like this. But what does this mean for me, the ordinary computer user? First, you are not at risk even if a system you use is the victim of a DoS-attack. The attack cannot harm your computer even if you try to access the system during the attack. Your data in the target system is usually safe too. The attack prevents people from accessing the system but the attackers don’t get access to data in the system. So inability to use the system is really the only harm for you. Well, that’s almost true. What if your computer is infected and participates in the attack? That would use your computer resources and slow down your Internet connection, not to speak about all the other dangers of having malware on your system. Keeping the device clean is a combination of common sense when surfing and opening attachments, and having a decent protection program installed. So you can participate in fighting DoS-attacks by caring for your own cyber security. But why? Who’s behind attacks like this and what’s the motive? Kids having fun and criminals extorting companies for money are probably the most common motives right now. Sometimes DoS-victims also accuse their competitors for the attack. But cases like this does always raise interesting questions about how vulnerable our cyber society is. There has been a lot of talk about cyber war. Cyber espionage is already reality, but cyber war is still sci-fi. This kind of DoS-attack does however give us a glimpse of what future cyber war might look like. We haven’t really seen any nations trying to knock out another county’s networks. But when it happens, it will probably look like this in greater scale. Computer-based services will be unavailable and even radio, TV, electricity and other critical services could be affected. So a short attack on a single bank is more like an annoyance for the customers. But a prolonged attack would already create sever problems, both for the target company and its customers. Not to talk about nation-wide attacks. Cyber war might be sci-fi today, but it is a future threat that need to be taken seriously. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Andreas Kaltenbrunner.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word! Safe surfing, Micke PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address. Image by Yumi Kimura
Every year Cyber Monday sets new sales records. The Monday after the U.S.'s biggest brick-and-mortar shopping day a year opens the online shopping season with a flood of sales and deals that are often better than what you'll find in person, without the crowds. But whether you're shopping for presents or not during the next month, advertisers and online criminals will assume you are. And if they aren't targeting your wallet, they may be after the private photos and videos we all keep on the hard drives of our computers or devices. Right now, you can get our F-Secure SAFE protection on 5 PCs or devices with 200 GB of free secure cloud storage. Until December 6, we're giving away one free license for SAFE on 5 devices along with 200 GB of storage and a SAFE hoodie for free each day on our Facebook page. Read the the rules and enter now. And while you're shopping on any device, stay skeptical. Stay focused. And keep up the same online shopping and storage hygiene you should be practicing all year long: 1. Make sure your system, browser and security software are patched and protected. If it's software, it requires updates. As developers have become better at reminding you to update your software, there's become more to update. So keep up with your operating system updates and make sure you're running updated security software. 2. Do all your shopping in in one browser. No Java. Our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan advises that you do all of your financial transactions in one browser that you only use for shopping and banking. “Too many tabs open, too many things going on – that’s when you’re most prone to click on a malicious link or download something you shouldn’t have," he said. So use Chrome for surfing and Firefox for the serious stuff. Whichever browser you use for your transactions, you should disable Java in it -- and all your browsers if possible. If a certain website you need to use requires Java, enable it in just one browser that you use only for that site. 3. Stick to stores/sites you trust. Bad grammar and poor design have been the warning signs of malicious sites and emails for years. But criminals are always upping their game. Your best bet is to avoid untrustworthy sites in general, just as you likely avoid unprofessional looking stores and people who randomly try to sell you stereo equipment from their van. Avoid shopping via Google. Go directly to sites you trust and search there. 4. Only shop over a secure connection -- VPN and https. If you're shopping via Wi-Fi, make sure you're on a network you trust or secure yourself with a virtual private network like F-Secure Freedome. This will encrypt your data to protect your passwords and other private data. Freedome also protects you from scams and trackers, which may use your data to sell you things that do not fit your budget. To make sure your data is secure as it's being transmitted, don't enter your private data unless you see you're on a secured connection where the url starts with "https". If you're not seeing that, move on to the next store. 5. Use one credit card for all your online shopping -- or use credit card alternatives. Limit your damages. If your data is captured by a crook, chances are your credit card company will catch any irregularities. However, you still may be left without a card during the holiday season. Using only one card for online purchases also makes it simpler to keep focused on how much you're spending. For extra security, Sean recommends that you see if your bank offers virtual credit card numbers that can only be used once. 6. Check your statements. You do this? Right? If you don't check your statements to make sure all the charges are yours, who will? 7. Do not reuse passwords. It's like putting the same lock on your house, car, boat and safe. Your passwords for your crucial accounts are sacred and need to be unique and strong. This isn't easy, which is why we recommend a password manager. You can use our F-Secure KEY on one device for free. 8. Have a secret email account for online shopping. Sites like Amazon allowing you to use your email for a login, which is convenient. It also means anyone who knows your email, knows your login and is halfway to cracking your account. A simple solution is to use a special email account that you with with no one that you use as login for financial accounts. 9. Back up everything. What's on our devices and PCs is worth more than the hardware themselves because they represent the thing we can never get back -- time. During the holiday season, your phone is filled with memories of celebrations and gatherings that will only happen in that exact way once. So make sure all your devices are backed up, all the time. 10. Use a cloud service you can trust. As you know from the series of nude photos of celebrities released this year, the security of your cloud storage matters. The more people you have trying to hack you, the more your content is at risk. Using a service -- like our younited -- that offers two-factor authentication and is designed to protect your privacy. Happy holidays, Sandra [Photo by Mike McCune via Flickr]