free good or bad

Free – good or bad?

It’s always nice to get something for free. Or is it? There are really some free lunches on the net. But what appears to be free can have a hidden price, which often is paid by other means than money.

Internet did for a long time lack payment models and everything on the net was truly free. This was fine on a net that was an academic tool and playground for enthusiasts. Our Internet of today is totally different, and to a large extent business driven. But the culture of getting stuff for free on the net is deeply rooted. People are used to free stuff, or are hesitant to use payment on the net in fear of fraud. This has created a lot of new business models based on free products and services. Either genuinely free or with a hidden compensation. One of the important skills for today’s cybercitizens is to recognize these business models and understand the hidden risks and compensations. Read on to learn how.

Before you take the bait you should always ask yourself: Why is this thing offered for free? That’s the key questions as the vendor’s motives dictate if the product or service is safe to use. First look for info about who made the product and why. Then try to place it in one of the categories below. Now it will be a lot easier to make an educated guess about how safe it is.

Ad-financed

A very common way to provide free products or services. Ads are showed to you and the vendor gets money from the advertisers. Be careful with ad-ware your children are using. You have no control over the ads and some content may be unsuitable. Otherwise these are mostly legit if you don’t find the ads too annoying.

User profiling

“If you don’t pay for the product, then you ARE the product.” This is taking ad-ware to the next level. Big data companies like Facebook and Google offer their services for free, but create extensive profiles over their users and utilize them for marketing purposes. This is a privacy problem as you have no control over what data they collect and how it is (mis)used. Intelligence agencies are on top of that also eager to tap into your data. If Facebook knows something about you, then NSA knows too. The problem here is that it is very hard to know what price you really pay for the “free” service. You should consider if the privacy risk is worth taking for the value you get in return.

Hobby and ideological

Many create programs and web services for fun. Giving it away and seeing that people really use it is part of the joy. Some may also have ideological motives, like fighting corporate dominance, guarding peoples’ privacy or defeating net espionage. Products in this category are genuinely free and there’s no hidden compensation. The Firefox browser is an excellent example. The Linux operating system is another.

This “business model” is safe for the customer, but the products and services may not always be the safest choice technically. Providing safe software is a tough task and requires constant maintenance. Hobbyists are not always professional enough for this. In this category you will find a wide range of products with technical security ranging from excellent to very poor. It’s also futile to expect good support services in this category, unless the product has a well-working user forum that provides peer-support.

Donation financed, “begware”

This is a variant of the previous class. Some providers of free software ask for donations openly. This is like a product with a voluntary payment. A lot of people will use the product for free, but some will contribute a couple of bucks to cover the vendor’s expenses. Wikipedia is a good example. BTW, have you ever donated to them? I have and I think it’s very well spent money. The value I get in return is far greater.

Taxpayers’ money

Some free services are provided with tax-payers’ money. These are typically OK to use. Quality might vary tough, as the public sector often lacks the culture of customer service and competitiveness.

Upselling or service fees

Many vendors provide a basic product or service for free, and more functionality or capacity for a price. This is a nice way to let customers try it out and decide later if they need the paid version. Sometimes the product is entirely free and the business model is based on selling support services for it. There’s nothing wrong with this business model and the products are usually OK if the vendor is trustworthy. younited from F-Secure is a good example, like most other cloud services.

Bundles

Getting something for “free” when buying something else is a common marketing trick. It’s not really a free product, the pricing scheme is just set up to hide its true cost. A common example is receiving a “free” mobile phone or 4G-dongle when signing up for a 2-year subscription. Hardware prices are declining and many people have a misconception that these bundled items are worth more than they really are.

Pirated content

Some content is offered to you free of charge and with no strings attached, but the distributor lacks the right to distribute it. Distributing stuff without permission is illegal practically everywhere, but your status as receiver is not as clear. Whether it is a crime to download the stuff depends on your country’s legislation. Also remember that the common peer-to-peer sharing networks, like BitTorrent, both download and share at once. It’s also common to distribute malware masqueraded as pirated software. The safest way is to look for the content’s original vendor or distribution point, and download it from there. Then you will learn if it really is free, and lose the malware as an extra bonus.

Scams and malware

Malware and scams are often masqueraded as free offerings. Be extremely careful if you are tempted to sign up for anything that sends you “free” information as text messages. Your mobile phone number is a payment method and scammers can charge you for bogus messages sent to your mobile. It can be next to impossible to get them cleaned off the bill. What you think is a handy utility program may also turn out to be malicious software. If you can’t figure out why the tool is free, the real reason may be to plant malware in your computer or mobile device.

Let’s finish with a checklist for people considering using a free service or product:

  1. Find out who made it. Check if the vendor declares openly why the product is free.
  2. Check if the vendor offers paid alternatives to the free version and how they differ.
  3. Try to figure out what category the free offering belongs to.
  4. Is the vendor trustworthy? You shouldn’t use software from untrusted sources even if it’s free.
  5. Finally consider if the free offering really is what you want. Sometimes it’s a great alternative to expensive products, sometimes you pay a high hidden price just to save a couple of bucks. And sometimes the free alternatives just aren’t up to the task and you would be better off with a professionally made product. Consider if it really is smart to save a couple of dollars and insert potentially unreliable code in the system with all your irreplaceable content?
  6. If you still are uncertain, search for user opinions on the net. The true free gems, like Firefox and Linux, have huge user bases and you can find a lot of info about them. Be careful if you have problems finding independent opinions about a free product you consider.

Safe surfing,
Micke

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In what color would you like your new Mercedes?

A new Mercedes. Nice. Or maybe an Audi R8? That would be cool. But hold it! Don’t sell your old car yet! Liking and sharing that giveaway campaign on Facebook will NOT give you a new car. Those prizes doesn’t even exist. They are just hoaxes. Internet and Facebook is full of crap, junk, rubbish, nonsense and gibberish. Nobody knows how many chain letters there are spreading some kind of unbelievable story. False celebrity news, bogus first-aid advice, phony charity campaigns and this kind of giveaways. We tend to think about these chain letters as hoaxes, pretty harmless jokes that doesn’t hurt us. But that’s not the full story. A hoax can be harmful, like the outright dangerous first aid advice that some people keep spreading. But a car giveaway is probably a harmless and safe prank, even if it’s false? No, not really. These chain letters are actually not traditional hoaxes, they are like-farming scams. There’s no free lunch, you don’t pay for Facebook with money but with your private data. The like-farming scams work in the same currency. You will not lose any money even if you like the page and share it. Instead you will participate in building a page with a lot of supporters, which is valuable and can be sold later. Needless to say, you will not get any of that money. Here’s how it works. Any business has a problem when starting on Facebook. An empty page without likes isn’t trustworthy. So the scammers set up a page containing anything that can go viral. A promise to get a luxury car works well. They just have to tell everyone to like the page and to share it as much as possible, to keep the chain reaction going and get even more likes. The scammers wait until there’s enough likes before they clean out the content, rename it and start looking for a buyer. The price is in “$ per k”, meaning dollars per 1000 likes. A page with 100 000 likes could sell for over $1000. So sharing the page can make quite a lot of money for the scammers if you have a lot of gullible friends, who in turn have a lot of gullible friends, and so on … The downside for you is that the likes stick even if the page is redesigned for some totally different purpose. Your face will be an evangelist for the page’s new owners and show up next to their brand. And you have no idea about what you will be promoting. I have friends who are anti-fur activists. You can probably imagine what one of them would feel when discovering that she likes a fur-coat designer! And finally some concrete advice. Review your list of old likes regularly. Remove everything except those things you truly like and want to support. When you encounter a giveaway post like this, check the involved brand’s main page in Facebook by searching for the brand name. You will in most cases notice that the giveaway is a totally different page that just is named similarly. That’s a strong scam indicator. Use common sense. From the above you get an idea about what likes in Facebook are worth. Does it make sense to give away luxury cars for this? Don’t participate in scams like this. It might feel tempting, but remember that your chance to win is exactly zero. Spread knowledge every time you see a scam of this kind. Comment with a link to this post or the appropriate description on Hoax-Slayer or Snopes.   Those sites are by the way fun and educating reading. I recommend spending some time there getting familiar with other types of hoaxes too. Read at least these two articles: Facebook car giveaway on Snopes and Facebook like-farming scams on Hoax-Slayer .   Safe surfing, Micke  

Dec 16, 2014
BY 
crime scene

Help! I lost my wallet, phone and everything! I need 1000 €!

“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

Dec 8, 2014
BY