Making money on the Internet

The "payment officer" scam is a huge success lately. At least I think it is because everyone is doing it. A couple months ago I was getting one of this once in a while, now I get a couple everyday.

In case you've missed it, the scam work like this:
You're offered a job as payment officer (or any other name), your duty is to receive payment from customers and send the money to your boss at headquarters. You get to keep a percentage of every transaction (usually 10%). So far so good, it really sounds like a sweet deal, maybe too sweet. But "entertain no fear my friend" (as nigerians always say), the reason why the company is doing it is because of 9/11, patriot act, laundering controls, etc that makes too complicated for our customers to pay from USA to foreign countries (exactly what you're supossed to do).
How this "job" really works? You get bad checks, forged or stolen. The bank usually let you get the money before the check goes all the way round. By the time the check bounces, you've already sent the money to your boss and the bank wants it back. The reason why the bank gives you the money in advance is because you're good for it, they don't care about the check (as far as I know this system applies only to the USA). The scammers knows is and that's why they'll push you to send the money as soon as possible, they know that the time frame is limited before the whole thing blows up.

The inside of the "company" it's a band with access to the real stuff and freelance "bosses" recruiting marks over the net. Once your boss gets you on the hook, you're presented to the company as a prospect. If they like what they see (your name, address, ID, job position, etc) they'll contact you as "customers" and start the transactions.

Now there's an extra twist to this scam. Instead of a check they make a transfer straight into your account. I'm still wondering about this, because it means that somehow they have control over an account with enough money or credit to do it. I suspect that nigerians scammers are into the phishing business too. If they get hold of a user/password combination for a bank account, they wait for the opportunity to make a transfer to a payment officer's account. If they time the operation properly, the payment officer will send the money before the victim of the phishing finds out. From that point, it's someone's else problem.

It's hard to believe how easy it is, but it is.

I took many of this jobs. My idea was to make them send the checks to someone who cares and can do something about it, law enforcers I mean. But I'm still trying to find one who does. In the meantime, I made them send the checks to dead ends where they got lost. I don't want to give much details about it in case they read this blog. The good thing is that each check that they send to me is a check that won't hurt someone else. So far, only this year, I catched almost half a million dollars. And this is only those I could get some kind of confirmation.
Some of the checks were sent through regular mail and I had no way to confirm them, maybe they were not sent at all. Others were sent by courier, Fedex or UPS, and I verified that using the tracking number. For some, I also received a copy of the original waybill. This is great because it gave me information about how it was sent, from where, how it was paid, etc. The bad news is that they're all dead ends. Paid in cash at the counter (no real name or return address) or charged to a hijacked account (real name and return address but it's just another victim).

Transfers are hard to handle for me. A couple times I sent bogus account numbers, some worked (no complains from my boss) some didn't (a lot of complains). I can't tell what happened. It's obvious that if you do a transfer from the bank's web page and the destination number is wrong, the system should warn you about it. But why some seemed to work? Maybe they didn't, the "company" called my bluff and decided to cut my "boss" out of the loop. The chances of typing a good number randomly are incredible low.

It's a real problem because transfers is becoming the most popular way to scam. One reason could be that it's a lot more easy for the mark. Most people is reluctant to get checks from strangers, but the transfer is money already in your account. You have to do nothing, sign nothing. It really feels like you're not taking responsibility for it, it's just in there waiting for you. The other reason could be that phishing is working and they have control over many bank accounts. Forged and stolen checks require hard work and are limited, accounts taken by phishing require less work and are coming fresh daily. If I'm right and there's a connection, it's a scary scenario.

And probably is. The transfer scam is being used in connection with the advanced fee frauds. If you don't pay the fees for your lottery prize, your inheritance papers or your contract certificates, they will offer you to deal with a financier who's willing to pay for it. But, because the financier is inside the lottery/court/government, he can pay by himself. The payment has to be done from you personally. So the money is sent to you first, then you have to resend it to wherever it is that it has to be sent. And how it's going to be sent to you? A bank transfer.

As you can see, it's always about creating a missing link in the money chain. They may have access to the money but if they use it directly or send it to their own accounts, the chain goes to them. When you send the money to them through Western Union or Moneygram (to a fake name somewhere in Africa where they can get it without an ID), the chain is broken and you're the last link.

The bank on top of the phishing ranking (at least in my mail accounts) is the Bank of America. I don't think is something about the security level of their online system, it has to be something about the way money can be transferred from their accounts. I've sent them a message with details about it. I think that they should try to catch some of this jobs and make the scammers do the transfers to controlled accounts. The scammers have control over some of their customers accounts and there's no way to find out which ones. Besides, the mark is going to be one of their customers too. If they do it, the hijacked accounts can be secured as soon as they're identified, the customer informed about the situation. I'd like to know that my bank is doing things like this to protect me, the publicity will improve the image of the bank and bring awareness to the general public about the phishing problem. The cost is minimal, I can do it on my free time. A lot more can be done from an organized group working full time. But, so far, no answer.

Law enforcers are not interested, neither is your bank. You have to take care of yourself kids. I won't be here watching your backs forever :oP


A Moebius tape of recursivity

Haven't posted articles in a while and I'm sorry about that.

After Google disabled my mail account my Blogger account was disabled too. Silly me, I didn't see that coming even knowing that Google and Blogger have unified accounts.

Anyway, everything's fine now. I have access to both my mail account and my Blogger account again. But in the meantime I was seting up another blog and re-editing all the articles because I though that my account was as good as gone. And that kept me busy all the time that I could have use to write.

I have a lot to write about.

Check scams are rising now and I'm going to get back to this issue in a future article. Meanwhile, don't take a job as a "payment officer", don't take a job over the web, don't trust a "company" just because it has a website, don't sell book (or any other thing) to schools or academies in India, Africa or anywhere if they were requested by mail. Believe it or not, the scammers are going to that extent to lure you into taking their "rubber" checks.

Phishing is high too. I've seen a lot of mail forms lately. These are the phishing messages where the form to post your data is inside them. No need to click a link and post on a web page, you can do it from the message itself. Which is more tempting and makes the actual phishing web page invisible. In fact the page is only a script that forwards the content of the form to the phiser's mail account. If you call it without the content of a form you get nothing. And that makes it very hard to report to network administrators, because there's nothing to see from the hyperlink.

One of the scripts is totally legal, meaning that it was created and it's used legally. But it's open to the general public when it was intended to serve the customers of a hosting service. The administrator was doing some complicated things redirecting the script to eBay if the referrer included a reference to them. But the result was that if you try to access the script manually by yourself, eBay showed up. Bad idea. Let's say that a person suspect that the message is not real. He tries the link manually and eBay shows up. Most likely he'll think that the message is good, fill the form and get his credit card cloned.

Some other administrators are doing things differently. I saw a phishing page this week that was replaced with a warning page explaining phishing, in case you are a potential victim, and trashing the phisher. I'll see if I can recover the link for you to see.

And I've just contacted another who is taking a strong stand against scammers. But this is for another article.

Today I'm writing about human stupidity and how technology makes things worse.

Lately I'm seeing that the number of scam messages from LatinMail is increasing. This happens often, a free mail server gets popular among them. Yahoo is still the number one, even when it's also the number one in closing their accounts.

The trick nowadays is to send the first message with spam servers with a disposable mail account and, once the contact with the mark has been established, move the operation to the Yahoo account.

Sending from a spam server makes the message impossible to report, no mail server would accept it just because the mail allegedly used belongs to them. They want a header showing that the message was generated from their servers.

This trick works as a crib, those who suspect the message can't report it and won't pursue matters, and those who answer won't report it.

But sometimes, they use a mail server that they know or they think is lenient in its abuse policy, like LatinMail in this case and another that is rising, adinet.com.uy.

I started reporting just to see if there was a response. I didn't get one but at least the abuse address didn't bounce, something that's pretty common.

Then, a couple messages bounced. That was odd. Most of the time the bounces are because the abuse address doesn't exist at all or its quota has been exceeded, meaning that nobody has checked the account in years. And on both cases the bounce is immediate and for every message.

This time only a couple of them bounced. So I took a closer look at the bounce message. And I found this:

< latinmail@latinred.net> : host mail.latinred.net[] said: 451
Blocked - see http://www.spamcop.net/bl.shtml? (in reply to
RCPT TO command)

SpamCop is an organization working against spam, I guess the name is graphically enough. They take information from user reports and traps they set purposely. From that information, they keep a database of offending IP numbers. The addresses from whee spam messages are originated. The database is public and anyone can use it to check if the source of the message is reported. I'll get back to the details later.

Using this database, LatinMail detected that the IP address has ben reported as source of spam several times. So, they blocked the message and buonced it.

Nice, isn't it? Well, not really. Because the IP belongs to LatinMail. And it was reported several times, along with others also belonging to LatinMail, because is the source of a lot of spam. Including scam messages.

The second minor detail in this story is that the message that I sent wasn't generated or forwarded from that IP. The reference to that IP was in the header of the message I was reporting, which was inside the body of my message.

Somehow, their script is unable to understand where the real header ends. Somehow meaning someone did a lousy job, a header has a distinctive boundary.

But the bottom line is it's impossible to report abuse to LatinMail. If you take the IP number out, they won't see evidence that the message generated from them. If you let the I number, the message bounces.

And I'd applaud a system so efficient in dealing with reports. But this one wasn't meant to work like that. This is just the result of plain stupidity in charge of technology.

This is a real Dilbert system, something that Scott Adams talked about on "The way of the weasel". A system so incompetent that looks brilliant in terms of results from a corporative point of view. Their antispam software blocked thousands of messages, showing that's incredible efficient, and thousands of abuse reports never reached them, showing an incredible clean mail server.

And going back to SpamCop. The idea is good but I think it's a very complicated solution for a very simple problem. Eventually they'll fill the database with almost all the IP numbers that don't belong to a mail server and some that belong to a mail server. The database is going to be huge, probably it is now. And it doesn't take into account the human factor like this case of LatinMail. Someone using this database to filter its own mail.

You can read about my idea on a previous article. A system that's more simple, more efficient and based on information and protocols that ae available now. There's no need to invent new stuff.

The idea basically is that every server receiving mail (SMTP) must verify the IP of the sender through the domain name system to see if it's declared as a mail server. It has to receive only from other declared mail servers and terminate immediatly any other attempt. This way it saves storage space and bandwidth. The database to check is smaller, it's efficient and is in use right now. Eventually, the servers can make a second query to another database public or private to check if the sender, even being another mail server, should be banned for any reason.

And that's the problem with the world this days. Things are going so bad just because nobody's asking me...


Just rant

Today I'm going to rant for a while. So if you don't want to read me ranting you're free to walk away and come back at another time.
My first rant is about something I've been talking about in a previous article (Email and us) but this merits an encore.
This week I've received yet another mail with a Power Point presentation. I made a rule never to open one of those, I just delete them. And it's not because I think they may be a security risk, I do it because I know it's a waste of time. Of course I receive a few work related PP files, but I can tell easily because I know the source, I requested them or I've been told the they were sent to me previously.
I don't know why people feel that a message is more valuable because is presented written in a nice 3D font, with colors, sound effects and animations. It's not. If the message is crappy, meaningless, stupid, nothing will make it better.
But this case was somehow different. The subject was "We have to stop Israel!" and the content was just the PP file that I didn't open. Because it was from an employee of a company we buy supplies from and sent to my work account, I felt compelled to answer with "We have to stop spam!"
And he answered with "It seems that the bombs are not falling in your home". That was when I almost lost it, but I remembered what I wrote and applied my own rules (don't answer in anger, don't answer if you don't have to) to the case and dropped it.
I understand that there's a war there, I'm aware that it's a terrible thing and I agree that the war has to be stopped. But that's not the point. The point is that I don't want to get this garbage in my mail account and I have the right to draw the line and say it.
And the real problem with these people is that they trully believe that they have a higher sacred right to send anything. Just because they're talking about life and peace and harmony, their message is more valuable than animated puppies.
I can write for a long while about how wrong is to put one's right over someone else's. Besides, it doesn't matter. The message has no value, the sender is not fighting for peace, he's not a saving lifes.
It's a whole neew breed of "fat buttocks" warriors. They think that having the Internet they can reach millions and make a difference. And they're doing it, they're annoying millions. Sitting comfortably in front of a computer, they spread THE WORD around and most of the time is not even their own WORD. They use any hot issue to justify a spam crusade. This is something that satisfy their pathetic emotional agenda and that's all the satisfaction they'll get. Because it's not about the issue, it's only about filling their inner void.
So, here's my rant to them:

Wake up!! You're doing nothing!! You're just sitting in your fat posterior forwarding Powerpoints. The israeli government won't stop the war just because you filled its mail box. Hezbollah probably doesn't have one. The phone companies won't lower the prices no matter how many messages you send. Neither the oil companies. Fidel Castro is not resigning because you ask nicely on a message. It's not going to happen. If you take an hot issue from the news, it doesn't make sense to try to bring awareness to the general public. If it's in your newspaper, it's in mine too. If you're watching it on tv, I'm watching it too. And if you really really want to do something about it, go get active on it, do something, move you rear out of that chair. If you want me to listen, at least show me that it's worth enough to make you move away from your bag of chips.

My second rant is about Gmail. My mail account was "disabled" (whatever that means) and I can't use it anymore. It's not a big deal, the only purpose for that account was to catch scams, spam and phishing. The material that feeds this blog. But it pissed me off all the same. This is not the first account of this kind that I loose, it's maybe the fourth or the fifth. I can only guess but I think they're closed because someone reported them in violation of the TOS (terms of service). And it's easy to report them, all their traffic is related to scams, phishing, etc, and the identity of the user is fake. Obviously, the complainer is one of the scammers. And they have very good reasons to do that, I'm expressing them on my rant to Gmail:

Hey! From that mail account over one hundred phishing servers were reported, almost all of them were monitored until their closure. With mail address taken from the phishing messages or from files on the phishing servers, many dozens of potential victims were warned. Over three hundred mail accounts of scammers were reported and closed. And from this mail account, fake checks and transfers for over one hundred US dollars were ruined. Nice work Gmail!

The last thing is what I regret the most. I had two scammers sending fake checks to me and a couple more that were about to enroll me. Every time they write a check with my fake name, they have to pay for that check and there's no way to recover it. It's almost impossible for them to get it back and if they do, my name is on it. Every cent on that checks is one cent they won't get from someone else.
Also I was on the verge of shutting down a fake bank used for lottery scams, Financial Alliance something. I wasn't shutting it down myself, I was in contact with the domain name registrar and the hosting service trying to make them understand the problem. I've just checked and www.fiall.com is gone.
Not bad after all. The account is dead now but it died in the middle of a fight... and it won that fight!


Are you safe? Are you sure?

Most likely you have a lock on the door of your house, probably more than one. Even so, valuables in the house are stored behind more locks. And I bet that you have at least one box with a lock inside a cabinet with a lock.
This is basic safety. The things that have value for us are stored in safe places. With locks that require keys. And a key is basically a password. It has a sequence of values, the indentations, in a particular order and if they match the lock all the levers will align and the barrel will turn free.
The passwords are the keys to our virtual safe boxes, mail, bank account, blog, etc. And the reason why we use locks for them is that there we store our virtual valuables.
The first problem we have with it is that virtual stuff doesn't seem to be too valuable. If your first experience with a password on Internet was your personal mail account, the password was more an annoyance than a safety. Besides playing you a prank, there wasn't much more value in hacking it.
But when the banks started to offer services through the Internet, things changed. Now the virtual safe has real valuables inside. And not only banks. There's a lot of services with real value that merit a good lock and key to protect them.
Others are not worth a good lock like subscriptions to newsletters, forums, media sites.
But what about our email accounts?
Somehow our personal mail accounts are being left behind in the security department. It's like the old idea of them being worthless stuck in our minds. In a way it's true because the chain letters, the endless forwarding of stupid jokes and hoaxes or the PowerPoint presentations with puppies are as worthless now as they were 10 years ago.
But now that the Internet is full of services with real value that can be measured in terms of cash, our mail accounts turned up to be the sum of all those values. Our mail accounts are the entrance door to all those services. Think about it, any one of them will graciously send your password or a newly generated one to that mail account at your (or anyone else's) request. Your mail account is your key, your ID, your safe box on the virtual world of the Internet.
You probably feel safe about it, you have a password, nobody can enter your mailbox without it. So, the rule number one is never ever tell your password to anyone. Have you? Are you sure?
Believe it or not, the number one method used to get a password is the most simple one, ask for it. Yes, that's right, exactly as you've read it, the best way to get a password is to ask for it. Of course you won't do such a stupid thing, if I ask you to comment on this article with your user name and password you wouldn't do it, would you? What if I ask you nicely? What if I ask you in a different way? What if I change the tone of my voice? What if I rephrase the question?
But you know better than that. You never fell for it, did you? Are you sure?

Everyday thousand of messages ask users to click and login on a web page and some do. I've been talking about this phishing thing in previous articles. You may say that the ones who fell for it were not the smartest in the pack and I think you're right. But are you sure that each and every page you've logged in was the right one? Did you checked every single one? Are you able to tell the difference?
The typical phishing is pretty rough. For starters, it's a business of volume, it doesn't work unless you send several thousands of messages. A lot of them will reach people that haven't an account, they'll be able to tell that something is wrong. For those that have an account, the message looks like any other message they get from that service. Maybe there's a detail or two, like in the case of Paypal. They allways use your first name on every message. The phisher can't do that because he doesn't have that information. This things are explained on Paypal's web page, that part that people don't read. And those who did read it, most likely forget it all by the time they get that message. The only real difference between the fake thing and the real thing is in the source code of the message. Do you check it? Are you able to understand it?
This messages are to direct most of the time. For a paranoid like me, the feeling of being pushed into doing something triggers all my alarms at the same time. Someone asking me to login or else... But let's say that you get one message from the auction site with a showcase of products, all of them with links to their pages. Doesn't seem dangerous, is not talking about logging in, no problems with your account. You click and the auction page shows up, it looks fine, just like the one you know so well. Once you settle down, feel comfortable, the login page appears. It has to be the real one, you were on the site already. Or weren't you?
And this is just one possible scenario. As you can see, it takes someone with knowledge and skills to tell if the message is real. You know about phishing because is everywhere, everyone is talking about it, it's on the news, you're reading about it right here. So you'll suspect any message asking for your password, asking you to login. But sometime it'll change, the attempts won't ask you for your password directly, they'll be more subtle. Are you prepared for it? Are you sure?

Once passed the message, you have to face the web page. Most phishing attempts are pretty rough in this part. If you check the navigation bar is evident that you're not on the right place. It could be an IP number or the name of a cigarette fabric in China. Whatever it is, it's not the address of the site you're trying to get into. But how many times do you check it? Do you at all?
Most of the time we type the name of the site we want to go to or take it from our bookmarks. We can tell that we're going to the right place, we typed the address ourselves. And you know better than clicking on a link offered by an email message. But what about web pages?
This is one of the most popular activities on the Internet, clicking. We go from page to page because it's there, it's easy, it's convenient, it's fun. And it doesn't matter if you're just reading the news. But if at some point you're offered a link to a site where you have an account, one with real value, and you log in there, do you check if you're in the right site?
One of the most dangerous sites today, in my opinion, are the auction sites. The links to their products are everywhere. Even worse, they pay webmasters to have pages with selections of products linking to the auction pages. It's a nice trick and I'd like to rant for a week about it. By having those pages, the auction sites multiply their chances of being listed on top of the search engines. Let's say that they have an auction of a consumer product that's very popular, this one would show once on the search engine. But if there are many pages with that product and a link to the auction page on many different web sites, it would show up once for every site. And if they have many auctions of that product, multiply that number for the number of sites linking to it. And my problem with it is that if I want to get information about that product I can't find it, the search list is full of auction pages and pages linking to the same auction pages. Try any popular consumer product and you'll see.
But this is topic for another article, the point here is that those pages with selections of products from the auction sites are everywhere, are known and accepted by the common user. So, if you find what you're looking for and you want to comment, ask or offer you'll click the link and login. It's natural, we're used to do this all the time. We click on a couple pages, we end up on the auction page, who's paranoid enough to go and check the navigation bar?
Doing a web page resebling a real auction is not really hard, in fact you don't have to actually do it. The phisers don't DO the login page resembling the real one, they just copy it and modifiy it to suit their needs. And it doesn't have to be an auction site, it could be anything. The traps can be set anywhere and take you anywhere else. I mentioned how a links can be disguised on a message, the same technique can be used on a web page. Take a look at this silly example, click on the link, visit Altavista and come back here. Yes, I know. It's not Altavista. If you put you mouse over the link, and your browser status bar is active, you'll see the real link down there, you'll see that it doesn't match the name I offered you. The point is nobody (or almost nobody) checks the status bar before clicking or the navigation bar after.

So the navigation bar is important and should be checked if you're logging in. But it's not all. There are a couple tricks to keep you from seeing where you are. One of them is to offer you the login page on a pop up window without the navigation bar. The other is to use a bogus icon image, those little icons that show up on the left side of the navigation bar. One of those totally useless niceties, for us the users, that turn up to be totally usefull for the phishers. The image is supossed to have a fixed size and square shape. But if you create one that's wide enough to cover the URL field of the navigation bar, now the real address is hidden and what you see is the address of the real site that was drawn on that image. Sometimes the font or the font size don't match those of your browser or the alignment is a couple pixels off center. But you have to be a careful observer to note such detail. This trick had its peak last year and I've never saw it again. I guess the new browsers have it fixed... I hope.
And the state of the art in deceiving you into going to the wrong site is to intercept your name resolution. In a previous article I explained name resolution in relation to a phishing operation. The name you type on the address field is resolved into an IP number because that's the information the net requires to find the site. Your name resolution is being done by a complex system of distributed servers. If I can hack your server and add a record for Yahoo with the IP of one of my servers, you'll connect to it every time you try for Yahoo and your navigation bar will show Yahoo every time. These servers are not very vulnerable but it may happen. In fact there was a case when the root servers were hacked, the records changed on the root servers were propagated to almost all the DNS servers around the world. The event triggered alarms everywhere, and was detected and fixed in a short time. But it proved the potential of a DNS attack. It can alter the name resolution for the whole world by attacking the root servers, only for a group of computers by attacking its DNS servers or only one computer by feeding it the wrong name information.
If you want to try and see how it works, you can do it in your own computer. There's an alternative method to resolve names in your own computer. In fact it's in the chain of resolution and it's top priority. But its lists is empty by default and it's rarely used. There's a file in your system called HOSTS, in the directory %SYSTEM%\Drivers\Etc if you're using Windows and somewhere around /etc/sysconfig if you're using Linux. This file can resolve names for you, all you have to do is put the IP number and name separated by a tab or space, one row per domain name. Try adding this line " altavista.com" (without the quotes), and see how Altavista turns into Excite. It may need a restart of your browser if you have the address of Altavista already resolved. To avoid unnecesary traffic, your system checks if the name you're asking for was accessed recently and uses the IP number it has in memory. Remember to delete that line or you won't be able to access Altavista again. This won't work if you're using a proxy server because the server will resolve the name for you.
This is not a common method of phishing or hacking. If someone has the access and the privileges to modify that file, there's a lot of ways to get your passwords and credit information from files stored in your computer. If it happens to you, it's more likely a "crime of passion". Someone close to you doesn't like you or is playing you a prank. It's not a common office prank because in most of them the use of a proxy is mandatory.

If I didn't push you enough into paranoia yet, brace yourself for the next part. Let's say that you were careful enough not to log into a page other than the one you intended to. There's a good chance you didn't actually. Despite the high number of phishing attempts, the number of people falling for them is very small in comparison. And what I'm about to describe hasn't been used as a massive phishing operation, I don't think it will be in the future either. But it's a vulnerability that may expose you to a random act of hacking or, even worse, a targeted one.
As part of your Internet experience you take part of different activities that may require a login. Even some that don't really merit one. Imagine that you join a forum, you're requested to register, you're asked for your mail address to send you a verification code, some personal data and a password. Are you using the same password for all your services? Some of you are thinking that this is a stupid question and that's something not worth mentioning. But you're wrong, is unbelievable the number of people that can't handle more than a couple paswords if they're using more than one at all. If you're one of them, think about this. You´ve registered into a site where people unkown to you have your mail address and your password. You may think that they don't know it's the same password you use for your mail account. Let me tell you, I'm not a professional hacker and that would be my first guess. I tried that with a lot of people I know (with their consent) and my success ratio has been over 50%. And if your mail address is exposed, what else do you have in there? Auction site, Paypal, your bank?
I'm not saying that there's a forum out there hacking into mail accounts. As a plan is pretty lousy. A forum takes time to build up a group of members and not many have a number of members that can be compared with the number that can be reached with a mail phishing. Even with the higher ratio of success that can be achieved. Besides, it's a one shot operation. People will find out the common link of all the haking events very quickly. Mostly in a forum where people talk about things like this.
The problem is not the forum and their administrators, the problem is how good the security of the forum is. I think I mentioned in a previous article that many phishing pages are being set in forums. The phisher are abusing vulnerabilities well known of the most popular forum scripts. And we're talking about maybe two PHP scripts, maybe not even two. Once you find out a vulnerability that suits your needs, all you have to do is find servers running that script with the version you know is vulnerable or one older than that. You wouldn't believe how easy is to do that, just Google for it. Ask for that script and the version number and Google will put in your desk a list of those servers.
And this is because forum administrators have that information available on their pages. They have to, is the right thing to do if they use the scripts. The scripts are very good, that's why they're popular, and the administrators who chose them for their forums have to give credit to whom deserves it. It's not their fault.
And if it's not the script, is a vulnerability on the web server or the operating system itself. The point is that the user database in that forum has a 50% of the keys to you valuables and that you have no way to know how safe it is. And it doesn't matter if they say that your password can't be read because it's encrypted, I'll show you in a minute that this is only half the truth.
I know that having more than one password is a pain in the rear but there's no other way to go. As you can see, once someone can put your mail address and a password together your whole security fortress starts to fall brick by brick.
Even if you're not using the same password for your mail account and the forum, how safe is your password?

The second most effective way to break into someone's account is by password guessing. There are compiled lists of the most popular passwords, some general and some for particular groups. By language of course but also by etnicity, religious beliefs, etc. Those lists are not capricious, they were compiled from real databases of passwords since the beginning of the computer era. Nowadays, most servers have their own list of "popular" passwords and ban them to prevent guessing attempts. Among the top of the list are words like Jesus, God, curse words and, believe it or not, password. Those can be prevented by the server or the user itself, but there's another list that you must take into account, your own list. Your profile in the forum has your name, your birthday, your zip code, your address, your phone number, your city, your country and some other personal details. Which one are you using as password? I hope none, because this is the list that's being used to guess your password and the success rate is amazing. And if you're typing then backwards, forget it, it's on the book too. Your profile is available to the general public in some places and in other only to registered users. Whoever is on the look for your password can register as quick and easy as you just did. But he won't be using his real information.
Password guessing has many advantages for the perpetrator. It can be done from the outside, there are many ways to do it without leaving traces, most of the servers don't ban connections based on the number of failed attempts, it's easy to setup a procedure to do it automatically. And it's effective. Try to play the guessing game with family and friends, you'll see that the youngest, who don't have much value on the Internet, have strong passwords while the oldest, who have money and valuable services, have the weakest.

And this is something that can be done to break into your account without actually breaking into the server. If your password is weak and the perpetrator is lucky, the server won't be able to tell your login from his. The only difference would be that he may need more attempts than you do.
But having access to the server, allows the perpetrator to gain access to many passwords all together. He just copy the users file and do the work at home with time. If the server is simple, with lousy security, the users file probably is a plain text file and no more work is needed, the password is right there in the open. If the password is encrypted, it will take some time but it's possible to get the password or something as good as the password.
Password are not really encrypted, because the value stored can't be decrypted. The method used is to apply a mathematical function to the password and store the result. The function is such that it has to give the same value for the same password and can't be reversed. One example could be the sum of the digits of the password. Let's say that your password is 1234, the sum of the digits is 10 so the number 10 is stored. There's no way to rebuild the password from this piece of information. When you reenter your password and, applying the same function, it matchs the value stored, then the server can say that you entered the right password.
This functions are called hash functions and are a lot more complicated than the example. A good hash algorithm should generate big differences with minimal changes, have an image domain of respectable magnitude and generate the less amount of collisions.
The first condition is to avoid password guessing by proximity. Two very similar passwords very similar have to turn up in two very different hash values. You'll see why in a minute.
The size of the image domain prevents massive guessing. A small image domain means that the number of possible results of the hash function is limited. Imagine a hash using the last digit of the sum of the digits of the password. There are only ten possible results, all I need to access any account is a list of ten passwords that give the ten possible hash values. The ideal hash function would be one with an infinite image domain. But even one with a relatively limited space is almost as good in practice. A 10 hexadecimal digits hash space has more than one million of millions of different hash values, and I can't write the number for one with 1024 digits. It's a one followed by 1,233 zeros.
Being the hash function a one way function, is possible to have the same hash for two different passwords. If the image domain is smaller than the space of possible passwords, it will happen for sure. Because the number of passwords is greater than the number of posible results. The system would let someone login to your account with a password completely different from yours. However, finding that particular password is as much difficult as finding yours.

This system of not storing password but hash values is efficient and practical. It's not bullet proof safe though. If someone gets the users file and knows the hash function used in that server, there's a method to get either the real password or something good enough to access the account. It's called the dictionary method.
To do that, a database is created calculating the hash values of all the words in a dictionary. It's a big database but something that a regular computer can handle. This databse is used to cross check every hash in the users file. If there's a match, the word associated to that hash is a valid password for that account. It could be the real password or not but, either way, it will work.
The hashes that don't match a value on the database can't be guessed by proximity, if the hash function complies with the first condition.

Enough with the bad news, let's talk about the good ones. Things that you can do to improve your paswords.

Pick strong passwords. Not one word passwords, not only numbers, nothing on your profile, not your name or your address, make them long, change them frequently, and I can keep going on and on forever. These are the recomendation of the experts and I totally agree, but it doesn't help much. Add to that the need to have more than one.
The problem is that if they're easy to remember they're easy to guess and if they're hard to guess they're hard to remember. And you shouldn't have them written in stickies around your monitor. So, the best solution is to have a method you can remember. Some kind of password generator algorithm that can make them with a variety of numbers and letters and lenghts but, basically, a method that you can remember. I'll give you an example, not the one I use. The rules are:

- Put the name of the service, the user and the current month together
- Replace all a's for 4's and the i's for 1's
- Capitalize the letters on even positions unless they were converted to numbers

The password for username in Paypal this month would be p4yP4LuSeRn4mE4UgUsT and for the same name in Gmail would be gM41lUsErN4Me4uGuSt.
Including the month allows you to change your password monthly without the hassle to go through memorizing it again. The passwords will repeat in a year, unless you throw the year in the mix, but that will be way beyond the ban imposed for most systems. Including the name of the server or any word related to it (auction, mail, bank, etc) allows you to have as many passwords as needed and you don't have to memorize them all, just the set of rules. The last rule seems simple but it's not actually, it's hard to keep count of the positions when you can't see what you're typing. But that's the beauty of this, you can set any rule you like. Capitalize the last letter, or the first or the one in position X. You can change any pair of letters and or numbers. I pick pairs that have some relation, 4 looks like an A, 1 looks like an I. And there's a lot of pairs to use, O and 0, B and 8, S and 5, G and 6. You can change letters for the next in the alphabet or the previous. Try adding a word that only you know, or only a few around you. Like the name of a pet from your childhood, the name of your secret lover, a word from a song that makes you cry when you hear it. This way, even if you write down your rules and leave them on a sticky under your monitor, there's always a piece missing.
Be creative but not too much or you'll end up with a set of rules impossible to remember.
And try to keep your mail address private, don't spread it around like the plague. Get a disposable mail account for subscribing unsafe places, media web sites, game sites, anything that asks you for a mail account and has no value. And don't link your safe and unsafe mail accounts. If they get to your unsafe one, the safe one is just one step away.

It's great to have the chance of having valuable services on the net, but I'm too paranoid for that. I like to go to the bank and show my ID.


Don't want to say goodbye anymore

It would be nice not to say goodbye anymore but it's something I have to do.
And I'm aware that it's an exercise in futility. They open more accounts and keep doing what they are wired to do. But in the balance, it's a click to the forward button for me and all the hassle of opening another account plus explaining to their "customers" why the change... it's worth it.
Nothing remarkable on this list, just a bunch of scammers.

I have some news from the phishing front. I saw a new variant where the form to post the personal information is in the message itself. It's interesting because this way the phishing page doesn't have to be too obvious, in fact they don't have to set a visible phishing page at all. The return page could be a blank page with a redirector to the real one (Paypal, eBay, etc).
Unfortunately I couldn't see this one working because it was down already so there's not much to comment on this. Maybe the next...

And here's the list:


Farewell my friends, I know you'll be back and I'll be waiting for you


A sophisticated phishing operation

Remeber the Live Messenger installer trojan? Is gone. It doesn't change a bit my article but it's good news.
I'd like to add that I had no grudge with Microsoft, at least not only with them.
I mentioned in previous articles how the lack of attention of those in charge of networks and servers is helping criminals in their activities. So, the list of people I have a grudge with is really really huge.

Today I've received yet another eBay phishing message, this one in particular was the tip of a major phishing operation. I saw one like this before but a lot smaller.
The typical phishing page is set on a hacked server, there's no need to take full control of it, just access to create a directory and copy some files is more than enough. Lately I've seen a lot web server running on ADSL or cable networks, almost all of them Apache web servers. My guess is that more people are using Linux and are letting the web server running and serving the public interface. Maybe there's a reason to have the web server on, maybe they're using an administration tool that requires it like Webmin, maybe they're doing web page development. But they don't have to serve the public interface. And I can tell that most of the times the intention wasn't to serve the public interface, because if I go back to the root the Apache default page shows up, there's no page there for users outside.
The whole phishing job is to hack a server, set a page, send the messages and wait. The page may have a local data file to store the data collected; nothing fancy, just a text file; or sends the data by mail to a free account controlled by the phisher.
The messages are sent with the same techniques used by commercial spam. Which is good, because most spam filters are chatching them.
If you want to stop a phishing job, these are the points to attack:

* Block the messages, this part is being done already by spam filters. The problem is that they are a doing damage control, the messages were sent already, received and stored into the user's mailbox. And to make matter worse here are some reasons why spam filters are not enough:

- Not everyone has a spam filter
- Not all spam filter detect all the phishing messages
- Some let the message pass because the alleged sender is an authorized mail address for a Paypal user
- Some users pick up the message from the spam directory thinking that it was a filter error

* Block the access to the page. This is the most effective if done quick. Once the page is blocked or deleted, all the messages are useless. Moreover, the phisher will keep sending messages linked to that page for a while wasting his time. The problem here is the reaction time of the people in charge of servers and networks.

* Catch the phisher.

There's not much that can be done with the messages unless someone comes up with an effective way to eliminate spam (I know how, just ask me).
Going after the phisher is a very complex problem to solve. You can report the message and from it is easy to get the originating IP number. Hopefully, if it's being used legally by the phisher the ISP can identify him, I've seen many of them using a DSL services. But at this point they're only spammers, the ISP may slap his hand or terminate his account. My guess is that it has to be a repeating offender to get to that situation. Let's face the reality, the complainer is someone that could be somewhere on the other side of the planet, the perpetrator is a paying customer.
The servers that were hacked most likely are not being supervised properly, that's the reason why they're hacked on the first place. I don't think it will be easy to get an administrative log, when the phisher logs in to set up the page, or even an access log, when the phisher access the data file.
At this point, depending on the location of the server and the phisher, they may have a crime. But the owner of the server has not suffer any loss. Most likely, he's not using the web server at all and wasn't aware that it was running. He won't go through the hassle of filing a criminal case in court. He'll be happy to fix his problem and move on.
By the time the real crime is commited, with economic loss for the victim, a lot of small links have to be put together to go from the crime to the phisher. The victim has to be able to relate the loss of money from his account with the event of logging on a fake page, someone who wasn't able to tell the difference at that time. Then he has to be able to recover the original message and hope for it to have an IP number linking to the phisher or for the phishing page to be still active. And if the the page is intact, hope for a log showing the phisher activity in any way.
Let's say that all this things can be put together, it seems a pretty impressive amount of evidence to support a case. But so far is all bits and bytes, something that I can made up with Notepad on my PC. This is evidence that requires the analysis of experts to be used in court, people able to explain the meaning of it and to certify that it is the real thing.
But all this is after the crime has been commited, it does no good for the victims.
The most effective way to fight phishing is to attack the pages. They're less than the messages, once thousands of messages are sent they're out of control. There's no way to take action to all of them. The pages, on the other hand are static, they can't move, and they're limited in number.
It's all a matter of speed, they have to be eliminated fast to minimize the number of people login in. And if the page has a local data file, it has to be eliminated before the phisher can access it.
The first thing is to be aware that the page exists. It seems easy because I've reported so many, but I know about all those that are linked to messages I've received. I've exposed my mail address on purpose to get them and, even so, I'm sure I don't get all of them. The method is pretty good, to be used effectively it would take more than my one man army. Not much more, a small group of people working in shifts to cover a 24 hours per day operation.
The other way to get the warning is on the hands of the original sites. I think I said that before but is worth repeating it. The phishing pages are using the images and other elements from the original sites. Every time someone opens the phishing page, is sending requests to the original site for the logos, styles, etc. Every request bears an HTTP-REFERRER tag clearly showing that is not coming from the original site or other site authorized to request that object. So, the first warning, the one that activates every time a victim falls, is being sent to the original sites. This is topic for another long article.
Once the page is detected, the real work begins. The page has to be closed, deleted, blocked. The problem here is that the owner of the server itself can't be contacted most of the time. Sometimes, the site hacked is a public web server, one that's serving a public IP interface with a purpose. If you get to the home page, chances are you'll find a contact, email address or phone number. Even if you don't, you can check the contacts for the domain name registration. But this cases are not the most common. Public web servers are, in most cases, under control. The people running them is aware of the dangers of a public interface and have interest in the smooth operation of the servers. So they're either well protected or will answer quick to a report of hacking. There's still a number of servers handled by clueless people that will be hacked for sure and that won't act quick or won't act at all.
And they should be added to the most difficult group, those servers that nobody knows that are serving a public interface. Those are the real problem, they're over 90 per cent of the total, there's no way to contact the owner directly and, most likely, the owner doesn't know how to fix it.
Here's where the only resource is to contact the ISP in charge of the IP address and hope for the best.
The ISP is not going to block the IP completely, and I think they have good reasons for it. Besides the economic balance, unknown complainer against paying customer, the customer is also a victim. His server has been hacked , he's not getting benefits from the phishing.
All the ISP can do is contact the customer and tell him what the problem is. Then, it's up to the customer to put a remedy to the situation. And, most likely, he won't be able to fix it immediatly.
ISPs don't have firewalls to filter traffic in blocks of public addresses dedicated to customers, it doesn't make sense when the responsibility of the equipment connected to that public address belongs to someone else. With a firewall they'd be able to block the service port for that particular IP address and deal with the problem with time. But it would require high bandwidth equipment with the minimum latency time to filter less than 1 packet in one million.
Another alternative would be to force an IP change of the offending connection, if the assignment is dynamic. The ISP has to identify the customer, so he can be notified to fix the problem, force the expiration of the IP lease and reset the connection, forcing the system to request a new IP number. It would be a minor annoyance for the customer but it's a quick solution that could save many from falling into the trap.
In systems where the IP number assignment is static, the numbers are fixed for each connection, the solutions for the ISP are more complicated and sometimes there's no other solution than requesting the owner of the server to fix it.

And this is basically the way a typical phishing operation works. As you can see, it can be run with almost no resources, besides knowledge and skills, is really hard to fight against it and the chances of being caught are very small. Is the kind of operation that's profitable no matter how poor the results are.

Now, the more complex phishing operation. In this one, the phisher obtained two domain names. I don't know if he bought them, maybe paying with an account hacked on a previous operation, or took control of them by other means. One domain name was used for the phishing server and the other for a domain name server. Then he hacked two servers but not to install a phishing page, instead he installed the domain name servers (primary and secondary) and declared it as the start of authority for the other name. The name of the phishing server was amn27d.info and the name of the DNS server was COMNET-US.COM. Here's the trick, the names we use for domains mean nothing to a network, they have to be resolved somehow to an IP number. The domain name servers do that. There isn't a huge database with names and number correspondences, in fact it's a distributed database system. Each name belongs to an authoritative nameserver space depending on its extension (.com, .org, etc). These nameservers have their lists of domain names, but the records don't have the IP numbers for those domains. Each record has a pointer to the domain name server that has authority over that domain. This allows the owner of the domains to have more flexibility in the way they handle their networks. Let's say that you want to change your web server to a new computer, you don't have to ask someone else to change the IP assignment, you change your DNS record. Or if you want to have more than one server, you can tell your DNS to point your domain name to different IP numbers. This may work as a backup system, if A fails point to B, or as a load balance control, point alternative to A and B.
Having control of the DNS and the name of the phishing server, the hacker started planting phishing pages in as many servers as he could hack. I counted over 40 of them. As the server were set, they were also assigned to the domain name amn27d.info on both domain name servers. So, now, every time a request was made to amn27d.info the DNS server was able to point to anyone of the over 40 active phishing servers.
I said before that the phishing server was a weak point because is at a fixed location and, once detected, it can be shut down rendering all the messages pointing to it completely useless. Well, not anymore. Now all the messages points to amn27d.info and, if one of the servers is down, the DNS will point to any other. In fact, the DNS has no idea if the page is running or not. It reports to the client asking for that name, you or anyone asking for that page, as many IP numbers as it's configured to report. In this case it was configured to give 5 IP numbers picked up randomly from the whole lot. It's up to the client application, your browser, to check if the server is responding and, if not, move to the next IP number.
It's a very complex setup, for a phishing operation, but it's totally normal. Many Internet servers are using this kind of setup to improve its performance and uptime ratio.
To make matter worse, the hacker set the web servers to respond by domain name and not IP number. This means that if you use http://amn27d.info the server responds, but if you use the IP number, the server doesn't respond or gives you another page. In this case it was a blank page. The reason for that is it makes almost impossible to report the phishing servers. If the ISP checks by name, most likely the IP reported by the DNS server will be different than the one saw previously. The ISP would ignore the complaint because it doesn't belong to his network. If he checks by IP number, there's a blank page, no reason to take any action.
I found it by name, I took the name from the phishing message, went to that link and saw the page. Because it was using a name and not an IP number, I assumed that there was a home page with some content. It wasn't, so no contacts there. I checked the name record and started gathering contacts to report to. The name record has info of the owner and also the domain name server that's the start of authority over that name and, making the query, the IP number or numbers.
The first funny thing I saw was that the domain name servers of comnet-us.com were in DSL IP numbers and in different networks. It's normal to have DNS servers separated for safety, the IPs on different networks is not so common. But DNS servers on DSL IPs is weird. There's no difference from a network point of view between one IP or another, in fact if you're looking at the IP number only there's no way to know if it has been assigned to a web server or a DSL customer. The network administrators name their IP numbers, all of them whether they're serving to the public or not, for maintenance purposes. So, if you find an IP number with a name like ltown1-1-74.adsl.trix.net, you can tell it was assigned to a DSL customer.
Then, I saw that the DNS query for amn27d.info returned a different set of 5 IP numbers every time I requested. I tried and tried and finally compiled a list of more than 40 different IP numbers for that domain. I reported them to all of the ISPs, almost all were DSL connections, but it was useless. Not only I had to explain to them how to verify the phishing page resolving the name by themselves, even if half of the pages were taken down the messages would keep linking to the others without a problem.
I tried to focus on the DNS servers but it turned out to be really difficult. One of them was down before I reported it or immediatly after, but with the other still serving it didn't do much difference. And the other kept working for a long time. And the problem was basically that there's nothing wrong with having a DNS server running on your machine with a DSL connection. It's weird, it's a no sense for most applications, but it's not a crime and most likely not a violation of any service contract.
I reported it with all the details, the ISP asked for more information and I gave it to them, but I can understand their position. If they focus on their bailiwick, there's no problem. They have to look at the big picture to see the problem and, even if they do, it's not easy to explain how their network is involved on an illegal operation.
It's gone now. I don't know what happened (nobody tells me anything) but I guess that the customer was contacted and he fixed it.
The moral of the story is that this kind of sophisticated setup is possible, is cheap, is safe, and that we, the Internet community, are not prepared to deal with it. If I've found one, a lot more should be running somewhere even more complex, sophisticated and bigger.

I said it before and I'll say it again, I don't want a police control of the Internet, I think it's fine the way it is. But it need more responsibility from the users and I mean all of us. We all take some from it, we should give some too. The merchants have to take care of the marketplace, it's the only reason why they're there. And they have to take care of all the marketplace, right now they are willing to sacrifice a small percentage because they think that percentage is worth less than the cost of taking a little more responsibility. And I'm not saying that they have to save all, I don't think it can be done. But at least they have to try and it's not really expensive. If I can take down one operation like this over my lunch hour, imagine how much they can do with a small team working full time.


Some cleanup

I have an interesting article to post but it's not finished. I'm trying to make is good enough for not technical people to understand. It's about a phishing operation very well planned and organized. It took a lot of reporting and explaining to ISPs but it was worth it. The whole operation is gone... and it will be back.
Meanwhile, I want to remember all the scammers that are trying to login to their mail accounts and can't do it anymore. It's not exactly like that. They have plenty of mail accounts and they can open as many as they want. But every one closed may has meant one victim saved, at least annoying the scammer, and it only takes one click at the forward button.
You'll notice on the list that almost all are Yahoo mail accounts. The main reason is that their abuse department sends a notification when it "takes action". Whatever that means, the account is closed. Other mail services may take action or not, I just can infere they did because I don't get more mail from that account. Tracking every report to its final conclusion is a day job and I have one already.
Also, you'll notice that a lot of names are similar or the same. Sometimes is the same scammer coming back for more (why dissapoint them?) and some other are names of public personalities like Mariam Abacha (wife of the late nigerian dictator Sani Abacha), Charles Soludo (governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria) or Charles Taylor (ex liberian leader on the run).
Good stories needs some undeniable truth underneath to support them. Even if you don't know this personalities, you'll find information about them to confirm that they exist and that the story is possible.
Some others are names that are referred somewhere on the web where you can go and verify the story. For example, the names used for inheritance scams are taken from lists of people who died in airplane crashes, train crashes, 9/11. You can go to news web sites and look for this stuff.
Lately, there are many scams about US troops finding the money that Hussein (any of them, Saddam, Usay, Who-am-i) had stashed somewhere in Iraq. The names are taken from news too and the most popular seems to be Robert Seidel, a first lieutenant who died in Bagdad. Why did they take this name?, is a mistery. They could have taken any other name or made one up. But it seems that they are unable to come up with a western name. Don't ask me why, when the scammers want to impersonate a western person they're always Smiths and Jones or movie actors (Dr Jack Chan, also known as Jackie, is on the list) or variants of a movie actor name that somehow end up sounding even more fake than the original like Clint Southwood.
Other interesting thing is that the mail addresses have number, lots of numbers. Mostly because they use the same names over and over again. I bet that there are at least a thousand Abacha's in Yahoo right now, and I mean the active accounts only. Also, they open mail accounts in series, xxxx01, xxxx02, etc. This way, if one is closed and they have a "work in progress" linked to it, they can move to the next and pretend nothing has happened.

A sample of the kind of people we're dealing with.
Last week I won the Netherlands lottery. I answered the mail in dutch, I though it was a nice touch to use their language as a way to thank them for the price. Actually, it wasn't dutch, I don't speak dutch. But I made it looks like dutch. The agent in charge of my payment asked me to use english. So I replied "I though you'd like me to write in dutch". And he answered "No, we do speak english here, we're not germans" (SIC).
It's hard to believe that this kind of person is able to scam money from other but it happens...

And here's the list in alphabetical order:


Farewell my friends, I know you'll be back and I'll be waiting for you


Email and us

I hate email, sometimes, most of the time, all of the time.
Don't get me wrong, I think that email is a great thing, but the way we're using it is turning a useful tool into a carving knife stuck in our backs.
The biggest problem with email is that it's too easy to use.
Yes, read it again. I'm writing it and I had to read it again. But that's exactly the problem. It sounds confusing because it should be its biggest advantage, and it is. And is also its biggest problem.
Not only is easy to the final user. The rules of the email system, its protocol, are simple and easy to understand. We, as users, don't have to deal with it. But if we had to, believe me, anyone with a couple hours of instructions would be able to do it.
Let's take a look at some of the consequences of the easiness of email.


Spam is the first one to come to mind. Spam does exist because mail is easy to use. One spammer can send millions of messages pressing one button, no sweat. Of course he has to produce the content, the ad, but he has to do it anyway. Before email, the ad was produced too and the printed, folded, put into an envelope, closed, posted, stamped, etc. There was a considerable number of mechanical procedures and materials involved. Not only it took time and effort, also money. The typical spam ad is under 100 Kbytes, a 1 Mbaud DSL connection may transfer 100 Kbytes per second, assuming that the overhead of the communication is 4 times the size of the data (no way), you can send one message every 4 seconds, 21600 messages if your program run nonstop all day.
And this is a very conservative estimate. The overhead is not even close to 4 times the data volume, no decent spammer is working with 1 Mbaud bandwidth, using CC or BCC fields you can send one message one time to a huge number of destinations, and some other factors that increase the estimation to the levels we're seeing this days.
No effort, no cost, is like a dream. The worse part is that nobody cares if its efficient, and it's not. But is so cheap to do it and so easy to reach millions that wasting 99% of them is affordable, just getting 1% positive response from the 1% that is actually opened and read is worth the investment because the investment is worth nothing.

The first attempts to fight spam was based on black lists of senders, not a very successful strategy, and didn't last for long. Today is totally worthless, you don't get a real mail address from the sender and if you do it doesn't belong to the sender, most likely is one taken from the same list where your own mail address is, maybe you own.
Then the content analysis method appeared, software to check the content looking for telltales of spam. Words like sex, viagra, pharmacy, that showed up on most of the spam messages were compiled and rated in databases and used to rank each message. For each match, the message gets x points depending on the rate assigned by the database and z less points for each word that doesn't have a match. If the message gets more points than a previously established threshold, is spam.
The system is sheer genius, I have to give credit to the guys who invented it, but is not the real solution. The spammers then started to change the words, v14gra, s3x, ph4rmacy. Or cut them like Via gra, s.e.x, phar ma cy. You can read them but for a computer there's no match on the database. Or they sent pictures as inline attachments, no words in the message to rank but you still get an ad that you can read. Or they fill the messages with passages from Shakespeare, Whitman and other authors to decrease the rank of the message.
All this tricks were addressed by new versions of the spam filters but the tricks keep changing and the size of the databases of banned words will eventually render the system useless. But that's what we've got today.

One thing that you should never do with spam is click a link or answer it. This is a NO-NO-NO. Not even if you're interested in the product or service. Most of them are tagged, they have a code linked to your mail address. That option at the bottom you should click if you don't want to receive more, it's a lie, it's a way to confirm that your mail address is good, that is real, that someone is checking it frequently. Same for the links to the product, whether you buy or not they'll know that your mail address is good. Then, your mail address will be ranked higher and more likely to be spammed.


A scam mail is a message with a tempting offer. It's always someone who has money for you that can get just by giving your consent, use your bank account, pose as the heir of the fortune or just take the prize you won on a lottery you don't have a ticket from. The reward is always huge, my personal best was an offer of 425 hundred millions, about the debt of a third world country. And it has to be, because once the small fees and charges start to surface they want you to keep going to get your gold pot at the end of the rainbow. Is not easy to understand how people fall for this but they do.
Sometimes the offers don't look that good but they're good enough. Lately is common to see job offers that requires a fee to cover resume processing expenses or that requires you to have a bank account. The first one is pretty obvious but the second is not. The goal is always to get money from you, they'll try anything to make you send some. But the worst of all is when they actually send you a payment, a check or a transfer, because in the USA you're credited that money because you're good for it, not because the check is. This means that the money will be available almost immediatly but the check will keep going its way through the system. With the money at hand, you're supossed to send it to the scammer and keep your cut of the deal. Days later the bank will find out that the check is a fake or stole or something like that, and you'll have to give the money back. The bad news are that you don't have it and that you've just commited a crime because it was you who deposited the check and you can't prove that you received it legally.
This trick was (and is) very popular in auctions, the scammer buys your stuff and sends a check in excess of the price agreed. He blames his secretary, assistant or himself and asks you to send the difference to someone else. Different story but the same ending.
Email brought us scams because it's so easy for the scammer to reach us now, but also because it's so easy for us to jump in just by answering an email. And that's the next item, not what we get but what we give.


We saw that people fall for scams, not everyone but enough to keep the business running. Email contributes to this lapses of judgement because of its easyness, we have the urge to move on with it now, we feel compelled to answer every single one as they pop up in our mailbox. People don't take the time to think about it and when they type the answer there's no time either, we go so fast through it. Many years ago when mail was almost an art, we took our time reading every letter and writing an answer. Enough time to think about it and ponder each word, I'm sure that the scam business was a lot harder. While people were writing the answer, the excitement of the first impression started to fade and eventually find out the real nature of the offer. Now, we suffer the email fever. And not those who fall for scams, almost all of us do, we answer messages in the heat of the moment. No time to think about it, from reading to writing in a nanosecond, and just a few seconds to type and be ready to send. We can do it all in one breath and regret it for the rest of our lifes.
Answering email in haste is a big problem for both personal mail and work mail. I'm sure that any company with hundred of employees are suffering it right now. I know companies with less than 10 with this problem right now.
The mail replaces face to face communication. People try to avoid confrontation by using email, in a way they feel detached from the mail they write. Dealing with confrontation in person involves emotions, email somehow has become something totally impersonal. Maybe because the old style letters have material existence, we feel that they can convey our feelings, our moods. Email is not even thin air, it has no material form.
We have the feeling that, being physically away, we can do a better job of expressing ourselves. And maybe we can if we try, that's what we used to do with the letters. But there's one big difference in time, the time it takes to write, the time it takes to send. Time that we used to think, to carefully choose words, to go back and re-read, evaluate and correct.
We don't do that with email and I think that's the rule number one of email should be take your time. Never answer an email in haste, never start answering right away, never answer in less than one minute. If you take sonetime before answering, you may find a better way to do it. Maybe a more positive, organized, informative answer. Maybe a phone call. Maybe a direct face to face oral answer to the senders who's in the next cubicle.
I'd like to see new features on future releases of email software to deal with this problem. It could be a client application that blocks the send button for a period of time after you open a message or a server that sends you back every message with a huge sign saying "Are you sure you want to send this?". It can also check how much time you take from reading to sending and act accordingly, the fastest you do the longer it keeps sending it back for confirmation.
It's a joke, but I can imagine a corporation doing it. The bottom line is: take your time, be glad is not a face to face conversation, seize the opportunity. You can take as much time as you want or need without annoying the other party. We regret what we say frequently because we let our mouths open before our brains start to process what we've just hear. Now that we have the chance of revert the situation, we keep making the same mistakes.


To make matters worse, another nice feature comes in the picture. Back on the days when a xerox wasn't a part of our everyday life, each letter was unique. If it was addressed to more than one person, it was written or typed many times. If the sender wanted to inform someone else about the content of the letter, carbon paper was used to make a copy during the writing process. It was customary to indicate in the footer how many letters were done and how many copies, even the copies were numbered indicating how close they were from the original, something you could tell easily just by looking at the intensity of the print. This number set the hierarchy of the employees the way cubicle to window distance does today. And, if the sender wanted someone to be informed and nobody else to know, it was just a matter of adding another carbon paper and omitting that copy from the count.
With email you can address your letter to as many as you want just by adding them in the "to" field. Then copy as many as you want in the "cc" (carbon copy) field or in the "bcc" (blind carbon copy) field. All of them will get exactly the same message. That's why we need different cubicle positions now.
But the point is that before it wasn't easy to choose who will get the letter. Making extra originals took time, the number of carbon copies was limited and blind carbon copies were even more limited, because those who were to get one always got the first one.
Now, it doesnt' matter. People add and add, anyone on any field. The more, the merrier.
In the personal level, this easiness produces chain mail, long messages with one thousand forwarding headers and one silly comment at the end. People use to forward anything, and I mean ANYTHING. Whatever it is that fall into their mailboxes is automatically forwarded to all the contact list, friends, family, ex-anythings, co-workers and the plumber. They feel the compulsion to share those things that move them in any way. Power point presentations with puppies, silly two line jokes, infalible diets and hoaxes of all kind. And send to all the contacts on their lists, lists that haven't been checked in ages. Half of the people in there is dead, half of the rest are out of their life, half of the rest are unkown persons that were listed for unknown reasons and the one that's left is the one who sent the message originally.
Besides the use (waste) of resources, like bandwidth and storage, there's a lot of undesirable consequences from this behavior (I could mention annoying me but I doubt it will change my friend's habits). Spreading hoaxes creates the feeling that those stories are real, people are gullible, they want to believe. One probably wouldn't believe one message, but after reading it and hearing someone else talking about it the perception changes. Add to that a reunion where the subject arises and almost everyone is aware of it, and now it has turned into an incontrovertible truth. Of course everyone knows about it, everyone gets the same message, everyone sends it. Nobody is paying for each message you send, not to you not to anyone. All those kids and teenagers are not lost, and if they are, nobody is doing the search through email. There's nothing wrong with all those products that you've been using for ages, and if there is, it has nothing to do with all the things mentioned on the message. It doesn't matter how many keys you press in your cell phone, you won't get more free calls that those allowed by your call plan.
I'm sure that you can mention that one exceptional message that was real and useful and important, one in a million. And you're right, maybe that one was worth to be forwarded. But if it was so important, why didn't you erased the forward header? do you realize that after two page downs without finding a message most people trash it? why didn't you choose who to send to? why didn't you read it with enough attention to understand that that one made sense and the other ten thousands didn't?
Forwarding aimlessly is a lazy behaviour. If you want to share with a friend, go get some coffee with him and tell him about the message you've just received. Take a copy with you to show him, print it, copy to a floppy, whatever. Send it to him later if that's what he wants. Trust me, it's a better way.


It's a lot worse in the work environment where the email has turned into a lethal weapon.
Without email, written stuff was final, people met and discussed issues just like today but the written version was for final decisions, things that rarely changed. And it was done that way because writing was expensive in time and resources. I'm sure that meetings were a lot more productives for the same reason, it wasn't like engraving in stone but compared with email it was close to it. Everyone wanted to reach an agreement and that agreement to last forever. Imagine what a change would have meant at that time on a hundred pages specification or a blueprint. Even the smallest changes required all to be written or drawn again.
Today, talk is cheap and email is even cheaper. It's not even worth the paper is written into.
Drawings, specifications can be changed in minor details and printed over and over. Meetings are not so critical and issues are left to be disscused over email. Almost anything is disscused over email.
And, again, email is a wonderful tool but, as most sharp tools, it may turn into a weapon.
Discussing over email allows participants to express their ideas more clearly, without interruptions. Those who read have more time to understand the idea entirely, they can go back as many times as needed, take more time to ask for clarification and answer or not. At any time, all the participants can go through the whole discussion in detail. At the end, the messages can be archived for future reference.
Sounds nice, doesn't it? However in real life it doesn't work like that. Instead people babble endlessly about anything totally unrelated to the point in discussion. They write like if they were talking with total disregard of grammar and punctuation. It doesn't matter because nobody reads, each participant tries to impose his own ideas. Without face to face confrontation, people feel they can be more assertive, stand their grounds even if they're wrong. Because once you said X, X it is. Otherwise, two of your messages saying opposite things may and will be used against you. We have a natural resistance to acknowledge our mistakes. In oral communications is easier to blame a misscommunication, a missunderstanding. Nobody can really quote you literally and even if he can it's always arguable.
With email whatever you said is on everyone else's computer.
This is not a typical case. This is an enumeration of all the bad things we do with email. I wouldn't want to see all of them together. Because there are a lot more.
Every message includes the previous message which includes the previous message which...
Exactly like the aimless forwarding, this conversations grow with each intervention. So everyone has every single message as it was received plus every previous message included on it.
It gets worse. In the middle of the conversation, one participant takes the opportunity to add a personal message to another. Just because his name was there, his mail address at hand, the message is sent complete with all its content and on top a comment totally unrelated, an invitation to play tennis or a side comment on the tune of "can you believe this jerk?".
And if the receiver is not careful, the conversation may be continued from this message and distributed to everyone. The odd comment may remain unnoticed for a long time, maybe for ever, and if found it may be harmless. But what f it's not? What if the jerk finds out?
Sometimes this deviation occurs as part of the same conversation. Like when the input of someone not included initially is required for a particular topic. This person receives each and every single message from the conversation, all in one, with a question addressed to him on top.
This is a great opportunity to add to the confusion. Because he's not going to focus on the issue he should, he may or may not answer the question, but he won't limit his intervention to just that. For starters, he's going to read everything from top to bottom. Every single message not meant for him. Because they're there, because he wants to be updated of the situation, because he wants to be sure he's not being set up. After that he may answer only the question he's been asked, comment on any other issue from the conversation, raise any other issue related or not to the conversation or any combination of these. From now on, whatever his intevention adds to the conversation, everything will be kept circulating on every sinlge message among all the original participants plus the outsider who will remain included until the end.
Nobody wanted him included on the discussion from the start, whether there was a reason for it or not, and, for the same reasons, nobody would want him to remain included. However, nobody wants to cut him out either.
And that brings another issue. As we know, sending one message is the same as sending one thousand in terms of effort. Taking names from the address book is simple, is easy, is fast. No wonder nobody wastes much times trying to figure it out who to send to. When in doubt, add, unlike previous ages when one more copy was expensive and the default choice was don't. As a consequence, a lot of people is included that has nothing to do with the issue in discussion. Not only they get messages they shouldn't, wasting time and resources, also the door is open for them to actively disrupt the conversation with negative input or divert the attention of the group raising totally unrelated issues.
Nobody really pays attention to how the message was addressed. If you're listed on the "To" field, the message is meant for you If you're listed on one of the copy fields, the intention of the sender is to keep you updated but your input is not expected, maybe not even desired.
It should be a matter of common courtesy, at least, to contact the sender and ask for permission to participate before jumping in. Even by mail, but on a personal message to that person.
One would think that, being all this problems so evident, corporations have thousands of professionals dealing with this situation as we speak. And they are, they've been trying to define the problem clearly enough to write the proposal for a specification with rules and procedures to guide  users on good and efficient practices in the use of email... over email. The last message I've received was 100 Mb of quotes from the last 5 years and I don't even work for this comitee.

(Just kidding!)


Nice support Microsoft

This was supossed to be an article about email, but a small incident with Microsoft changed my plans.

I've been talking here about things that we have to deal with everyday using the Internet. Things that, for whatever reason, are way out of control for the regular user.
Scam that can't be identified by the regular user, that can't be reported due to jurisdictions problems, spam that fills our mailboxes and we can't tell from where is coming, etc.
In spite of all that, Internet is a huge marketplace, companies want to be there because people are there. Millions spend time on the Internet all day, everyday, and companies that wouldn't have gone too far with that thousand dollars start are now making millions.
I don't complain, I think is fine to have a healthy market going on.
But the think I don't understand is why those who profit from this market don't do something to protect it. It can't be money, they have plenty, It can't be resources, they have plenty. It can't be the lack of a doable solution, they know how to do the job and if they don't I do, just ask me.
Today I had one more evidence of this attitude, this time from Microsoft itself.
I've received a message on July 20th with an offer to download an install the new Windows Live Messenger. I'm not posting the message here, besides it's in portuguese. But I can tell you that it looks a lot like a Microsoft web page. Whoever did it, took the icons and the styles from real Microsoft's web pages. This is standard procedure for this kind of traps, the message has to look like the real thing to make you fall for it.
Once again, I want to stress the fact that this people is taking the images directly from the real pages. They're not copying the files, they don't have the images stored on their own servers or a hacked one, they're just sending the messages with links to the real thing. Like these


I took these links from a fake message, as you can see, they are all files in MSN's servers. Same goes to Paypal's and eBAy's phishign messages and web sites. They're all linking to the real files.
The companies can use this to their own advantage. The best list of phishing pages and web sites is in their own logs. Every time one of these images is requested, the server's log has the information to identify where it was requested from. If the location is a web page from an adsl IP address, they have to know it's a phishing page. When they're referred from a site in China, Singapore or anywhere else and it's not an image intended to be used by affiliated sites or the address is not one of their affiliates, they have to know that it's a phishing page.
They can avoid this too, save their resources from being used by criminals or, beter yet, protect their customers at the same time, the customers that are their reason to exist, those who make the market they're profiting from.
The solution is simple, they have to serve images only when the HTTP referrer is their own web page. If it's not, they can either not serve the image or send one with a warning saying "this is not from xxx", "if you're seeing this is because this web page or message is not originally from xxx" or any other that make the user understand that he's not looking at the real thing.
Surely, the phishers will start to take the images to another place and link to them. But that's more work for them and more weak links on their chain, every image storage that we can find and shut down will turn a lot of messages and web pages useless.
Even if the phishers succeed, the companies can escalate their defenses using dynamically generated images. Something that changes with time, depending on your location, even your own profile. Anything that shows that you're connected to the right server when you see a message or use a web page.
All these simple solutions will make the criminals invest more time and resources to keep operating, it will make them more vulnerables. Is not a punishment, is a way to turn the balance of the situation. Today, it's easy to do, it's cheap, it's safe, it's affordable. If they have to invest more time, hack more sites, get more storage space, they'll be more vulnerable, they'll have more weak points on their operation, their cost/benefit ratio will turn to the red side. Hopefully, the activity won't be profitable anymore, I doubt it, but at least it will decrease. The smallest players will be out and the big ones will see their business shrink. And being a small number of them, maybe it would be affordable to pursue them.

Going back to the Micrsoft support story, this message I've received have a link to download and install the new Live(R) Messenger. Here's the link and a warning. DON'T DOWNLOAD THIS FILE UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING. DON'T EXECUTE THIS FILE. It's a known trojan and if you want to know about it, all the information is around the web. No need to take a risk for that, go to Grisoft's web page and look for "Trojan horse Downloader.Delf.11.AS".

http: // descolados.irishost.net / Install_Messenger.scr

The spaces were added to make you think before trying the link. If you have antivirus software (a good one) and your files are updated, you'll get the warning immediatly.
So I went to Micrsoft's support page and reported it. Also I reported to the hosting service.
Microsoft sent me this answer

Hi James,

Thank you for contacting MSN Messenger Technical Support. My name is Jonathan and I'll be glad to assist you with your concern.

Based on the information I received, I understand that you found a Trojan virus installer advertisement together with Windows Live Messenger.

Before anything else, please accept my apologies for any inconvenience that you may have experienced because of this issue. Don't worry I will do my best to try to address your concern.

With respect to this issue, I would need you to send a support request to the Windows Live Messenger technical support queue, as the resolution specialists of the said support queue are tasked to handle concerns such as the one you are currently experiencing. James, I know that going through the process of re-sending a support request would be a bit tedious on your part, but rest assured that doing so will help resolve your concern in the quickest possible time. To send a support request to the Windows Live Messenger technical support queue, please visit: http://support.live.com and click Windows Live Messenger.

In this light, I hope that I was able to help you with your concern.

Feel free to contact us through http://support.msn.com if you need further assistance. For additional help, visit http://messenger.msn.com/Help.

Thank you for contacting MSN Messenger Technical Support. Have a great day.


MSN Messenger Technical Support

I have to recognize that they're nice people. First of all, they apologize, it doesn't matter why, they do. I hate that attitude, it seems that if you're contacting support they have to, to make you feel better. Well, it's not working. It doesn't make me feel better. I know they don't mean it, it's just part of the training, it's the procedure. They don't have to apologize for something that's not their fault. The point is they don't pay attention to the customers, they don't listen, they don't take positive action. The procedure is make you feel better and move on.
But this is just rant, the real issue is that they don't take it as their problem. As you can see, they want me to go back to the support site but this time to the specific support site for Live Messenger. They know that it "would be a bit tedious", but it will "help resolve my concern". IT'S NOT MY CONCERN!! IT SHOULD BE THEIRS!!
Here's my answer.


I'm not going to do anything. I don't care. It's not my problem. I was nice enough to warn you about an event that may hurt your users, even Microsoft's image. You go and deal with it, or do nothing. The solution is one phone call away from you but it's a lot easier to put the burden on me and send me to fill other web form that will send me another automated response...
Sorry, I won't do it. Microsoft has been informed of the situation and I'm taking this message as the official answer. Thousands of Microsoft users will fall on that page, probably thousands did already, and the solutions was pretty simple. In fact I'm doing it, I'll keep trying to contact the site owner, the IP owner and the domain registrar until one of them takes the page down. They won't listen to me, they don't, they didn't. However, it feels a lot more productive than wasting my time going through Microsoft's corporative support system.

Have a nice day

Meanwhile, the page is still there...

PS: I've just send another round of messages to tfisher@irishost.net, jgilmor@irishost.net and abuse@webhostplus.com