Spam Is Growing and Getting More Sophisticated

What will they think of next?

We’re all familiar with e-mail spam offering prescription drugs, cut-rate software and herbal potions.

But spammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in delivering ploys intended to dupe people into divulging personal information. Some of their most recent innovations are traps for people who might be seeking help with drug or alcohol addiction.

A recent report from Symantec Corp., the Cupertino, Calif.-based developer of Norton AntiVirus software and other programs, says that unsolicited e-mails offering information about alcohol or drug rehabilitation services could very well be spam.
Appearing new this summer was e-mail with the subject lines “Get help today with Drug Rehab Info” or “Overcome Alcoholism Today” illustrated with photographs of people who seem depressed, the Symantec report said.

“It’s one of their more sinister attacks,” said Dermot Harnett, the report’s editor. “If you open it, it will bring you to a sign-up page asking for your name, address and e-mail information. It’s the first step in trying to get credit card information.”

Besides the innovations, the overall volume of spam is up, too. In July 2007, about 66 percent of all e-mail messages were spam, the report said. This year, the figure rose to 78 percent.

You may think it’s all coming from overseas, but according to Symantec, Americans are the biggest offenders. In July, the largest amount of spam — 27 percent — originated in the U.S., followed by Turkey and Russia, which tied at 7 percent, the report said.

The bulk of that e-mail contained phony offers or nasty computer viruses, Harnett said.

In an attempt to spread Trojan viruses, which can delete files or turn your computer into a spam-spewing zombie or snatch your e-mail addresses, spammers resort to both old and new ploys.

Some new spam tapped into consumer concerns over the mortgage crisis, high fuel prices and interest in current events. Some spammers disguised their missives as news alerts from legitimate news organizations.

In a particularly insidious example, spammers sent a message proclaiming the start of World War III. The e-mail contained what appeared to be a video link showing a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion. When recipients tried to play the video, they got a computer virus instead, the report said.

“They’re taking advantage of social issues. They’re reaching out and sending things that would catch people’s eyes,” said Dmitri Donskoy, senior software developer at Checkfree Corp. in Wallingford, Conn.

“The purpose of spam has changed over the last decade,” Donskoy said. “It originally started out as people flexing their intellectual or programming abilities. Now it’s migrated into more money-making schemes.”

This summer, e-mails promising nonstop online gambling fun, free products and up-to-the-minute information on U.S. presidential candidates topped the list of “phishing” and “brand spoofing” schemes, both intended to collect personal information from unsuspecting consumers, the report said.

“Spammers are in there to make money,” Hartnett said. “They’re going to try any angle.”

Donsky gave this advice: Don’t open any links or attachments in e-mail unless you know the sender. And even if it appears as if you’re getting an e-mail form a bank or some other familiar institution, do not click on embedded links.

“Always use your own links you have stored,” he said.

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