by Bill Snyder

5 New Online Security Threats to Avoid

Jan 31, 2011

Hackers just keep devising new ways to target Facebook and users. Read up on these five threats before you're "spear phished" - or worse.

I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, so when I got an e-mail from the social networking site telling me “you haven’t been back to Facebook recently” and here are some messages you missed, it didn’t seem odd. I clicked on the link, wondering what one of my friends was doing.

Oops. I was a victim of a hacking technique called “clickjacking.” If it hadn’t been for security measures built into Firefox, I might have been in trouble, because rather than going to Facebook, I was headed for

That site might have simply been an ad for cut-rate, Canadian pills — an annoying, but harmless detour. But it also could have been a site loaded with malware, include rogue applications designed to steal key personal information from me and people in my address book.

Facebook, with its hundreds of millions of users, has become the target of hackers, spammers, and just plain crooks. They’re trying to lure you in via scam surveys, fake applications and poisoned links, according to a report by Sophos Security.

Unfortunately, Facebook is far from the only popular Web site being compromised these days. Amazon, the giant e-tailing site, inadvertently left a door open that hackers could use to steal your password and get access to your credit card info.

And no matter what you’ve read about those evil Russian hacker rings, it turns out no country is the origin of more cyber attacks than the United States, according to Akamai’s quarterly “State of the Internet” report.

Here are five new threats, including three that target Facebook users:

1. Clickjacking: Sophos Security says this is one of the most common attacks hitting Facebook users. These attacks use maliciously created pages where the true function of a button is concealed beneath an opaque layer showing something entirely different. Often sharing or “liking” the content in question sends the attack out to contacts through news feeds and status updates, propagating the scam.

In my case, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I could have avoided the scam page by simply noticing that the address of the e-mail allegedly sent by Facebook was obviously phony. The lesson here is obvious: When you get an e-mail with a link, notice the return address. If it seems odd, delete it. Additionally, keep your browsers up to date; all are doing a better job screening out dangerous stuff, and since they’re free, why not take advantage of that protection.

2. Fake surveys: This scam is related to clickjacking since it attempts to make you click on something dangerous via a misleading message. Typically, the scam starts with a provocative (sexual or otherwise) message. Here’s one that Sophos highlighted recently:

“OMG! Look What this Kid did to his School after being Expelled!

After this 11 year old child was expelled from his school he went berserk.” Well, that’s intriguing.

However, you have to “like” the page and fill out a quick survey before reading the story. Whoops: you just gave scammers a commission for filling out the survey, and helped the scam spread by sending it to all your friends. The survey earns money for the scammers; they get a commission for every survey completed. And that’s why they’re spreading this message virally across Facebook.

3. Rogue applications: More perniciously, the fake survey can lead to rogue applications. Sometimes the applications will look for your address book and send the fake surveys to everyone in it, hoping to make money. Other rogue applications can hijack data by installing key loggers (apps that record and pass on key strokes) or other malware. Other fake applications can turn your computer into a zombie used to broadcast malware for the bad guys.

4. Amazon vulnerability: A security flaw apparently allows the company’s servers to accept passwords that are nearly — but not entirely — correct. Fortunately, the flaw only appears to affect older passwords.

The flaw lets Amazon accept as valid some passwords that have extra characters added on after the 8th character, and also makes the password case-insensitive. That flaw erases the advantage of a longer password, making passwords much easier to crack via software. This was first noticed by users over at reddit and has been picked up and verified by a number of reputable groups, including Wired.

In any case, it does appear that newer passwords are not affected, but it isn’t clear what the date cutoff is. In any case, you can simply change your Amazon password. If you like, change it back to the same password, but it will still be a new one as far as the server is concerned, and be safe. Amazon has not responded to my query on this topic, or any anyone else’s that I’ve seen.

5. Spearphishing: This is more likely to occur via regular e-mail; but you may also be hit by a spear through a Facebook or Twitter message. Spearphishing (or spear phishing) works like this. You’ll get an e-mail or message that seems quite personal, it may appear to be from a person or company with whom you normally communicate. But it will lead you to a poisoned site. Yes, this sounds like the “phishing” scams you’ve been warned about. In those you might get a message from your e-mail provider saying your inbox is full or you have to verify your identity and so on. Spear phishing takes that a step further by adding personalized information to lull your suspicions.

“Phishing messages usually appear to come from a large and well-known company or Web site with a broad membership base, such as eBay or PayPal. In the case of spear phishing, however, the apparent source of the e-mail is likely to be an individual within the recipient’s own company and generally someone in a position of authority,” according to the Sophos Web site.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at

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