Spam is one of the oldest malicious attacks around. The emergence of commercial Internet connection in the early 90's also gave birth to spam campaigns. However, spam continues to be the preferred attack method unlike others in the past. IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence 2017 reports that there is a 44% increase in spam activity last year. Most of those spam emails contain malicious attachments. Worse, around 85% of the malicious attachments spread ransomware.
Why is spam still the most popular among cybercriminals? First, let's look at how it works.
How Spam Works?
Email is one of the most popular communication methods online. Its simplicity makes it the first option for most of the people. Additionally, the majority of (if not all) online presence needs an email to work. Social media, web apps, subscriptions, etc. require you to have an email. Because of this, users check their emails multiple times a day. There's no better way to grab your attention than sending you a spam email.
Once you open the email, you are exposing yourself to different attacks. Spammers use links and attachments to launch attacks on your system. Then, infected emails and computer spread spam using your contact list. It allows the spam campaign to spread rapidly.
How Do Criminals Collect Emails?
A spam campaign starts with the right contact information. Hackers often have different ways to obtain emails even before launching spam campaigns. The most straightforward is to hack large databases. A perfect example is the Equifax Data Breach. Countless information from emails to social security information was compromised. Up to this day, consumers still feel the effects of the data breach.
Moreover, cybercriminals can create crawlers that collect emails on the Internet. These programs can examine websites, social media portals, and forums for email addresses. Along with crawlers, they may use social engineering methods to collect more emails. They may copy websites from reputable organizations that will ask for your personal information. Phishing is also a favorite way to gather information.
Malicious software is also an efficient way to take advantage of your contact list. Ransomware and other similar software can be instructed to infiltrate your email and collect all your contacts. Unsecured networks can also be used to sniff data on your connection. Additionally, they can just buy email databases on the dark web. Information such as credit card credentials can go as low as $5-$8. Emails are even cheaper.
How Does Spam Email Attack?
Spam emails follow a pervasive pattern of attack. It typically contains compelling subjects or pretends to come from legitimate sources for users open it. The attack begins when an unsuspecting victim opens the email.
The spam email may contain links, attachments, or both. The victim will be directed to a malicious website when he/she clicks the link. The site will drop a payload which is a packet or data or a piece of script.
The payload will scan for system vulnerabilities in the victim's computer. Then, it will communicate with the cybercriminals' server. The payload can do several things such as download more malware, collected information, or encrypt files.
Attachments can even act faster. The malicious payload hides in the attachment. It is activated when the user downloads and opens the attachment on his/her PC. The payload will begin its attack from there.
One of the best examples of the potency of spam campaign the is WannaCry crisis. to protect your system fully as a ransomware attack of "unprecedented level."
Spam emails, along with malicious ads and infected documents, spread the ransomware far and wide. The payload drops in the computer which scans for vulnerabilities. WannaCry attacks Microsoft Windows-based computers through its security vulnerability called EternalBlue. The WannaCry ransomware infected old versions of operating systems. The ransomware did not exploit those machines with the appropriate security update.
Types of Spam
There are numerous types of spam emails. The cyber-criminals can use anything that may attract your attention by a spam email. However, we can group these emails into a few categories.
Advertisements for products and services are one of the most effective spam campaigns. Classic examples are ads for weight loss pills or sexual enhancers. This type of spam email will often ask you to visit a website. From there, hackers will begin the attack on your system.
Phishing emails aim to collect as much information from you. Emails pretending to be your bank, credit card company, or even the company where you work will ask you to provide personal information. This type of spam email will copy designs from reputable organizations. It makes it easy to fool a victim.
The Nigerian prince scam did not become a part of the online pop culture overnight. It is one of the oldest scams around. Easy money scams such as lottery, business proposals, and other scams easily trick victims. Additionally, there are travel scams, delivery scams, and even online dating scams. The goal is to appeal to your specific interest. It aims to capture your attention and compel you to click a link or download an attachment.
There are newer ways to spread malicious software. But, why do cybercriminals still prefer spam campaigns? Well, spam campaigns are cheap and fast. Hackers can send out emails in bulk. It takes minimal effort on their part. Additionally, they also rely on botnets to spread spam emails faster. Botnets are infected computers that deliver malicious emails to other users through its network and contact list.
Most users do not even know that their computer is part of a botnet. That means hackers do not need much energy and resources to launch campaigns. A recent report by TrendMicro reveals that more than a million organizations are part of a growing botnet called Reaper.
Moreover, spam reaches the victims directly. Every time you open your email, there is a possibility of opening a spam email. It also uses links and attachments to drop payloads directly. Spam emails can infect you with anything from spyware to ransomware. The popularity of handheld devices also makes it easier to access emails and receive spam. The more people open their email accounts, the more chances spam emails can get through.
Who are Vulnerable?
Anyone with email is vulnerable to spam. The possibility of receiving spam increases as you use your email more often. However, specific groups of people are highly at risk. The elderly, children and those who have less experience in online tools have a higher possibility of attacks.
Hackers use social engineering to lure victims. People who are not aware of such methods are more likely to open links or download attachments. Additionally, they may share their email addresses online willingly.
Once it compromises the victim's computer, spam emails and malicious software spread. That means, it can even spread to others in their contact list. People who are otherwise knowledgeable of spam campaigns may open malicious emails when they see that it came from one of their contacts.
Protecting yourself from spam emails and malicious attacks starts with taking extra steps. Tools are only secondary to habits that you should develop. Here are a few things to remember:
Maintain Clean Inbox
A clean inbox does not only ensure productivity but protection. As much as possible, do not subscribe to unnecessary newsletters. Just subscribe to trusted sites. Empty your spam folder regularly as well.
It is also recommended to use reliable email service providers. Providers like Gmail or Outlook often have protection in place. They have active spam filtering as well.
Do not click links or download attachments without confirming the source. It is especially important if you receive emails from your bank or similar sources. Give them a call or visit their official website to verify. Delete the email if it seems questionable.
Almost everything online requires an email. Always keep your privacy in mind. Your email is a gateway to most of your online presence. Do not post your email on public pages especially social media.
We suggest that you set-up a disposable email or a separate one from your email. That way, you can sign-up for online services without sacrificing your security. Some even maintain multiple email addresses which are used to retrieve accounts.
Install an excellent anti-malware to fully protect your system. Protection, such as MalwareFox, ensures that you have security all the time. Its real-time protection allows secured browsing. It filters any malicious attacks coming online.
You can also run a scan of your system if you suspect of any infection. MalwareFox examines downloaded files for any malicious activities. It effectively removes any questionable files or programs. The regular update ensures identification of new threats as well.
Many assume that you need technical expertise to understand online threats. In fact, basic knowledge about security is enough to understand most of it. You can protect yourself with such information at hand. You are less likely to get an infection when you combine it with the right tools.