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Spam and phishing in Q1 2021
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[Image: abstract_securelist_spam-1200x600.jpg]

Quarterly highlightsBanking phishing: new version of an old scheme

In Q1 2021, new banking scams appeared alongside ones that are more traditional. Clients of several Dutch banks faced a phishing attack using QR codes. The fraudsters invited the victim to scan a QR code in an email, ostensibly to unblock mobile banking. In actual fact, scanning the code resulted in a data leak, money theft or device infection, if it contained a link to a web page with malware.

To lure users to their sites, phishers exploited the COVID-19 topic. In particular, in a newsletter purporting to be from the MKB bank, recipients were asked to catch up on the latest news about the pandemic and measures taken by the bank. The link pointed to a fake Outlook authorization page.

This past year, cybercriminals have actively exploited the topic of government payouts, most often in relation to damage caused by the pandemic. In Q1 2021, scammers imitating bank emails began to focus on compensation. The links in their messages took the victim to a well-designed phishing pages with official emblems, business language and references to relevant laws. The attacks were mostly aimed at stealing any card details and personal data.

However, users of specific banks were also targeted. In this case, the focus was on copying the external attributes of the bank’s website to create a near-indistinguishable phishing version.

Vaccine with cyberthreat

COVID-19 vaccination was one of the hottest global topics, and hence highly attractive to scammers. Cybercriminals took advantage of people’s desire to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. For instance, some UK residents received an email that appeared to come from the country’s National Health Service. In it, the recipient was invited to be vaccinated, having first confirmed their participation in the program by clicking on the link.

In another mailing, the attackers focused on age — people over 65 were asked to contact a clinic to receive a vaccine.

In both cases, to make a vaccination appointment, a form had to be filled out with personal data; and in the first case, the phishers also wanted bank card details. If the victim followed all the instructions on the fake website, they handed their money and personal data to the attackers.

Another way to gain access to users’ personal data and purse strings was through fake vaccination surveys. Scammers sent out emails in the name of large pharmaceutical companies producing COVID-19 vaccines, or of certain individuals. The message invited the recipient to take part in a short survey.

Participants were promised a gift or cash reward for their help. After answering the questions, the victim was redirected to a page with the “gift.”

Having consented to receive the prize, the user was asked to fill out a detailed form with personal information. In some cases, the attackers also asked for payment of a token amount for delivery. However, if the victim went ahead and entered their bank card details, the amount charged was several times higher. Needless to say, no gift materialized.

The vaccination topic could hardly be ignored by spammers offering services on behalf of Chinese manufacturers. The emails mentioned lots of products related to diagnosis and treatment of the virus, but the emphasis was on the sale of vaccination syringes.

Such offers may look very favorable, but the likelihood of a successful deal is zero. Most if not all of the time, the “business partners” simply vanish into thin air after receiving the agreed prepayment.

Corporate segment: on-the-job fraud

Corporate usernames and passwords remain a coveted prize for scammers. To counter people’s increasingly wary attitude to emails from outside, attackers try to give their mailings a respectable look, disguising them as messages from business tools and services. By blending into the workflow, the scammers calculate that the user will be persuaded to follow the link and enter data on a fake page. For example, a “notification” from Microsoft Planner invited the user to review their tasks for the coming month. The link redirected them to a phishing page requesting their Microsoft account credentials.

In the Runet (Russian internet), we found an email seemingly from the support department of an analytics portal. The messages talked about recent updates and suggested checking the availability of the resource. The link also required entering corporate account credentials.

Old techniques, such as creating a unique fake page using JavaScript, were combined in Q1 with overtly business-themed phishing emails. If previously scammers used common, but not always business-oriented services as bait, the new batch of emails cited an urgent document awaiting approval or contract in need of review.

Every little bit helps

Since the end of last year, we have observed fraudulent emails and fake pages urging users to pay a small sum for certain services. The payment indicated in the fake email was often so tiny that the potential victim could ignore the risks. For example, in one of the emails below, the cybercriminals ask for just 1.99 rubles (US$0.027). The calculation was simple: users would be less averse to paying a small amount than a larger one, which means more potential victims willing to enter card details on the bogus site. To make the emails more convincing, they imitated commonly used services. For example, delivery services — messages from which are often faked — led the field. The potential victim was asked to pay for customs clearance or package delivery.

However, the scammers did not fake the courier service emails very well: they were readily given away by the address in the From field or by the invalid tracking number indicated in the email.

Besides delivery, scammers found other reasons for mailing out “invoices.” In particular, fake notifications about payment for domain usage or even an expired WhatsApp subscription did the rounds. In the latter case, the very mention of a paid subscription should sound an alarm, since even the business version of WhatsApp is free.

Although the scammers asked for a token payment in the email, in reality, if successful, they siphoned off far more than that from the victims’ account, and swiped their bank card details. This danger is ever-present when entering data on dubious websites.
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