Has your email been “hacked?”

I got two suspicious messages today.  They were identical, and supposedly “From” two members of my extended family, and to my most often used account, rather than the one I use as a spam trap.  I’ve had some others recently, and thought it a good opportunity to write up something on the general topic of email account phishing.

The headers are no particular help: the messages supposedly related to a Google Docs document, and do seem to come from or through Google.  (Somewhat ironically, at the time the two people listed in these messages might have been sharing information with the rest of us in the family in this manner.  Be suspicious of anything you receive over the Internet, even if you think it might relate to something you are expecting.)

The URLs/links in the message are from TinyURL (which Google wouldn’t use) and, when resolved, do not actually go to Google.  They seem to end up on a phishing site intended to steal email addresses.  It had a Google logo at the top, and asked the user to “sign in” with email addresses (and passwords) from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and a few other similar sites.  (The number of possible Webmail sites should be a giveaway in itself: Google would only be interested in your Google account.)

Beware of any messages you receive that look like this:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
Subject:            Important Documents
Date sent:          Mon, 5 Aug 2013 08:54:26 -0700
From:               [a friend or relative]

*Hello,*
*
How are you doing today? Kindly view the documents i uploaded for you using
Google Docs CLICK HERE <hxxp://tinyurl.com/o2vlrxx>.
——- End of forwarded message ——-

That particular site was only up briefly: 48 hours later it was gone.  This tends to be the case: these sites change very quickly.  Incidentally, when I initially tested it with a few Web reputation systems, it was pronounced clean by all.

This is certainly not the only type of email phishing message: a few years ago there were rafts of messages warning you about virus, spam, or security problems with your email account.  Those are still around: I just got one today:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
From:               ”Microsoft HelpDesk” <microsoft@helpdesk.com>
Subject:            Helpdesk Mail Box Warning!!!
Date sent:          Wed, 7 Aug 2013 15:56:35 -0200

Helpdesk Mail Support require you to re-validate your Microsoft outlook mail immediately by clicking: hxxp://dktxxxkgek.webs.com/

This Message is From Helpdesk. Due to our latest IP Security upgrades we have reason to believe that your Microsoft outlook mail account was accessed by a third party. Protecting the security of your Microsoft outlook mail account is our primary concern, we have limited access to sensitive Microsoft outlook mail account features.

Failure to re-validate, your e-mail will be blocked in 24 hours.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Help Desk
Microsoft outlook Team
——- End of forwarded message ——-

Do you really think that Microsoft wouldn’t capitalize its own Outlook product?

(Another giveaway on that particular one is that it didn’t come to my Outlook account, mostly because I don’t have an Outlook account.)

(That site was down less than three hours after I received the email.

OK, so far I have only been talking about things that should make you suspicious when you receive them.  But what happens if and when you actually follow through, and get hit by these tricks?  Well, to explain that, we have to ask why the bad guys would want to phish for your email account.  After all, we usually think of phishing in terms of bank accounts, and money.

The blackhats phishing for email accounts might be looking for a number of things.  First, they can use your account to send out spam, and possibly malicious spam, at that.  Second, they can harvest email addresses from your account (and, in particular, people who would not be suspicious of a message when it comes “From:” you).  Third, they might be looking for a way to infect or otherwise get into your computer, using your computer in a botnet or for some other purpose, or stealing additional information (like banking information) you might have saved.  A fourth possibility, depending upon the type of Webmail you have, is to use your account to modify or create malicious Web pages, to serve malware, or do various types of phishing.

What you have to do depends on what it was the bad guys were after in getting into your account.

If they were after email addresses, it’s probably too late.  They have already harvested the addresses.  But you should still change your password on that account, so they won’t be able to get back in.  And be less trusting in future.

The most probable thing is that they were after your account in order to use it to send spam.  Change your password so that they won’t be able to send any more.  (In a recent event, with another relative, the phishers had actually changed the password themselves.  This is unusual, but it happens.  In that case, you have to contact the Webmail provider, and get them to reset your password for you.)  The phishers have probably also sent email to all of your friends (and everyone in your contacts or address list), so you’d better send a message around, ‘fess up to the fact that you’ve been had, and tell your friends what they should do.  (You can point them at this posting.)  Possibly in an attempt to prevent you from finding out that your account has been hacked, the attackers often forward your email somewhere else.  As well as changing your password, check to see if there is any forwarding on your account, and also check to see if associated email addresses have been changed.

It’s becoming less likely that the blackhats want to infect your computer, but it’s still possible.  In that case, you need to get cleaned up.  If you are running Windows, Microsoft’s (free!) program Microsoft Security Essentials (or MSE) does a very good job.  If you aren’t, or want something different, then Avast, Avira, Eset, and Sophos have products available for free download, and for Windows, Mac, iPhone, and Android.  (If you already have some kind of antivirus program running on your machine, you might want to get these anyway, because yours isn’t working, now is it?)

(By the way, in the recent incident, both family members told me that they had clicked on the link “and by then it was too late.”  They were obviously thinking of infection, but, in fact, that particular site wasn’t set up to try and infect the computer.  When they saw the page asked for their email addresses and password, it wasn’t too late.  if they had stopped at that point, and not entered their email addresses and passwords, nothing would have happened!  Be aware, and a bit suspicious.  It’ll keep you safer.)

When changing your password, or checking to see if your Web page has been modified, be very careful, and maybe use a computer that is protected a bit better than your is.  (Avast is very good at telling you if a Web page is trying to send you something malicious, and most of the others do as well.  MSE doesn’t work as well in this regard.)  Possibly use a computer that uses a different operating system: if your computer uses Windows, then use a Mac: if your computer is a Mac, use an Android tablet or something like that.  Usually (though not always) those who set up malware pages are only after one type of computer.

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