Be wary: Online scams arrived with the aftershocks

Posted: March 19, 2011

The Japan earthquake and tsunami is a horrendous tragedy that words can't fully describe. But that didn't stop one of the lowest forms of life, scam artists, from taking advantage of the generosity that rushes forth after such a disaster.

Only hours after the catastrophe, five of the top 10 websites listed in Google's search engine results for the "Japan earthquake" were malicious sites.

"Attackers create websites with malicious codes and scripts that will affect a user's computer," said Ivan Macalintal, a Microtrend threat researcher. "When users go to the website . . . it will install a fake anti-virus program on their computer."

But that is only the beginning.

"Users will experience a pop-up that will say their PC is infected with a virus and ask if them to purchase their anti-virus software," Macalintal said. "Usually rogue anti-virus software is cheaply priced around $40, enabling scammers to make millions of dollars."

Rogue anti-virus software is just one of the many new methods that scammers have created to prey on users of the Internet and social-media sites. Others include fake donation websites and emails, as well as malicious links on Facebook and Twitter.

"We've seen some emails claiming to be from the Red Cross, but are actually a scam," said Richard Wang, a manager at Sophos Labs US. "The link doesn't go to the Red Cross website, but will still ask for a donation."

Scammers have also taken advantage of the social-media websites Facebook and Twitter.

"A fraudulent Facebook message with a link to a video that reportedly showed the tsunami launching a whale into a building was a scam," said Wang. "If you clicked on the video, which was just a still picture, malicious spyware was launched into your computer."

And once the spyware is in your computer, the possibilities are endless.

"Attackers can monitor your log-in activity and take your username and password from different websites," Wang said. "Then they can hack into your personal information, bank accounts and credit cards."

To protect yourself, the advice is simple.

"Take what comes into your inbox or Facebook page with a grain of salt," Wang said. "If you want to help, go to the charitable website directly to make a donation."

The Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center advises never making a check payable to an individual for an organization and requesting and keeping receipts from your donation.

"Be aware that cyber criminals are rarely caught and they use tragic events, such as the Japan earthquake, as a catalyst," Macalintal said.

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