New Spam Technique Used to Hide ID Theft

First the good news about spam: most EarthLink Internet access subscribers feel that the problem of spam is generally under control. Not that they don’t get any (unfortunately). But it’s typically a very small amount that doesn’t detract much from their overall email experience.

And that’s impressive considering that 86.7% of all email sent is spam, according to Network Solutions. In May, spam accounted for 165.6 billion (yes, billion with a b) messages.

How do we go from 86.7% spam to the very small percentage our members experience? Our EarthLink spamBlocker tool, on its default Known spam Blocking setting, automatically filters most of the spam out, so our subscribers never have to deal with it.

We also offer a higher level of spamBlocker protection, called Suspect Email Blocking, which blocks all messages from senders who aren’t in your Address Book. This is a very effective way of ridding your Inbox of virtually all spam, but you do need to actively manage it so that you don’t end up missing email you do want because you forgot to put someone in your Address Book.

Distributed Spam Distraction or Spam Blizzard

Unfortunately there’s some bad recent news to report about spam: It’s a new spam technique called Distributed Spam Distraction or, in more colorful terms, a spam blizzard.

Both names give you a clue to what this type of spam is all about: distraction and cover-up. Like a blizzard of snow that causes a “whiteout” in which you can’t see anything, a spam blizzard prevents you from seeing.

What the blizzard of spam prevents you from seeing is evidence of ID theft and fraudulent transactions: specifically, the automatic email alerts and confirmations that are normally sent out to confirm bank transfers, online purchases, and other financial transactions.

It works like this:

  • The bad guys somehow get access to your sensitive personal account information (bank accounts, credit card numbers, passwords, etc.) as well as your email address.
  • Just before they start to use your information to make illegal bank transfers and fraudulent purchases, they start targeting your email address with a blizzard of spam.
  • A spam blizzard can last from several hours to more than 24 hours and may send more than 50,000 messages to your email account.
  • The bad guys then use your account information to steal from you. When they do, the automatic email confirmations that would normally alert you to the fact that someone transferred money from your bank account or used your credit card to make multiple purchases get lost in the blizzard of spam you’ve been receiving.
  • With the blizzard of spam overwhelming your email account, the bad guys have more time to take advantage of your stolen personal information without you seeing the evidence and putting a stop to it.

Because this Distributed Spam Distraction technique is targeted at the one individual whose personal information has been stolen – the opposite of most spam, which works by hitting as many people as possible – it’s harder to block with standard spam blocking filters. These spam blizzard emails also don’t contain links to malicious content, viruses or other malware that can trigger filters. And they typically avoid content filters by keeping messages very brief and based on random text rather than the sales pitches or other spam promotions that can trigger content filters.

What You Can Do Before ID Theft Happens to You

As with many health and security issues, prevention is the best cure. If you prevent ID theft in the first place, there’s not going to be any spam blizzard directed at you to cover it up. So make sure your personal information is kept as secure as possible.

  • Don’t email sensitive information like credit card numbers, bank account numbers, PIN numbers, and passwords. Email is not secure. EarthLink will never ask customers for their passwords over email.
  • Don’t click on links in emails asking you for account information. They are often “phisher” emails sent by criminals. If you need to go to your bank or Internet provider to check your account or make a change, type the URL directly into your browser. Learn more about phisher email and ID theft here. 
  • Create long, strong, unique passwords to log into your accounts. Don’t use simple, easy-to-guess passwords – and don’t reuse passwords. Here are three simple tips to help you create safer passwords.
  • Change your passwords frequently. You can change your EarthLink password here.
  • Make your PINs random. PIN numbers are typically 4-digit numbers, so you can’t make them stronger with length or other techniques. But make sure the numbers are random and not associated with you in any way, such as your birthday, year of birth, address, etc.
  • Be careful giving out account information over the phone, unless you initiated the call. Just like phisher emails, sometimes ID thieves will call people claiming to be from their bank or a government agency.
  • Make sure Known spam Blocking is turned on for your EarthLink account. It should be on by default, but if you’re not sure, here’s how to check and activate it. This spam filtering may not work depending on the exact spam blizzard techniques used, but it could be helpful. (The stronger Suspect Email Blocking setting would prevent you from getting the blizzard of spam, but it would likely also filter out the email alerts the bad guys don’t want you to see.)
  • Install and use security software on your computer. EarthLink provides our Protection Control Center all-in-one security suite free of charge to all Internet access members and offers discounts on Norton security products, such as Norton 360 Online and Norton Internet Security for Mac. Security software can prevent spyware and other malware from accessing your computer and stealing your sensitive personal information that is then used in fraudulent transactions.
  • Set up text alerts for as many important accounts as you can. Banks often let you add your mobile phone number to your customer contact preferences, so you can get account alerts sent as texts to your phone in addition to email alerts. This way, if your email account gets hit with a spam blizzard, you should still be aware of the problem via text. See what alert options are available for your credit cards as well.
  • Maintain good records of all your account numbers, account history, phone numbers and other account information. You may need to quickly inquire about your accounts and you may need these records to verify account information.

What You Can Do If a Spam Blizzard Ever Happens to You

First, don’t over-react to spam. If tomorrow or next week you get twice as much spam as usual, you don’t have to worry that this is an attack. The amount of “regular” spam that gets by our network filters and makes it to your inbox will always vary. Remember, for the spam blizzard technique to work and bury your legitimate messages, it requires a huge, blinding volume of spam, not just an annoying amount of spam.

Also, keep in mind Distributed Spam Distraction is a very new spam technique and it is still extremely rare. We are not blogging about it because it is likely to happen to you, but rather because if it ever does we want you to be aware that it can indicate ID theft that you should deal with quickly.

  • Act fast. If you do get a sudden blizzard of spam, be safe and assume it is being sent to cover up fraudulent account transactions.
  • Check your most important accounts first (either online or by phone). These are likely to be your bank, investment accounts, credit cards, and any other financial accounts you have.
  • Notify the fraud departments at your bank and other financial institutions that you may be victim of ID theft.
  • See if the accounts can be temporarily frozen or put on alert for suspicious activity.
  • Change your account passwords if you can, starting with the most sensitive accounts.
  • Notify the fraud department at one of the three credit reporting companies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion). Once you notify one that you are at risk of identity theft, they report to the other companies for you.
  • Fill out an ID Theft Affidavit (download a PDF here) that can help you report the ID theft to multiple institutions and also file a police report (once you are sure you were a victim).
  • Monitor your credit reports closely or “freeze” your credit reports so credit issuers can’t access your credit files (to issue new credit, for example) without your permission.

For a comprehensive list of ID theft recommendations, links to valuable resources, and contact information to help you deal with ID theft, visit Identify Theft: What to Do If It Happens to You from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

If you need further assistance with your spamBlocker settings or have questions about how to protect yourself from spam, call EarthLink Customer Support at 1-888-EARTHLINK (888-327-8454).

4 Email Account Security Tips

submitted by Peter Chronis

These days criminals are using a variety of techniques to compromise and gain access to accounts across the Internet.  They then often use these compromised accounts to send spam or gain unauthorized access to a victim’s private information (emails, banking information, etc.).

Just take a look at all the recent stories about stolen passwords and hacked accounts from some of the most popular sites on the Internet today.

phishingpasswordsTo reduce the risk of getting your accounts hacked into or compromised, we recommend that you take the following precautions to protect yourself:

1. Be Careful What You Click
Never reply to emails or click on email links that ask for your username and password. Our spam prevention partners have tracked a significant increase in phishing worldwide. Criminals often use phishing scams to help gather credentials.  Phishing is a term used to describe false emails sent from spammers claiming to be sent from a legitimate company (for example, EarthLink or well-known banks) and asking for your username and password. These fraudulent emails may look quite authentic – so beware.

2. Use Varying Usernames and Passwords
Don’t use the same username and password across multiple sites like email, banking and social network sites. Recent security research revealed that, on average, people use the same credentials to log into 49 different sites. Email usernames and passwords can be acquired from security breaches suffered by other service or product providers (tens of millions of credentials have been reported this year alone by other service or product providers). If you are using the same password for your EarthLink account as other accounts that were breached, then spammers may use this information to access your EarthLink email and send spam.

For these reasons, it’s good to have a system to generate strong, unique passwords for all the sites you use. Just follow these three simple steps.

You can change your EarthLink password here at any time.

3. Run an Antivirus Program to Curb Malware Infections
Some malware today is designed to run stealthily on your computer while it records the usernames and passwords to sites you access (your Web Mail, online banking, etc.).  Some security firms are reporting malware infection rates as high as 1 in 3 computers worldwide.  To protect yourself, the first step is to run an antivirus scan on your computer.  This can be done with any antivirus program of your choice.  EarthLink offers Norton 360 Online as a premium antivirus subscription with a Free 30-Day Trial if you want to check it out.

4. Choose Your Secret Hint and Word Wisely
A secret word or hint is often used to verify your identity when account changes are being made. You should not use information associated with you that is readily available on the Internet or through other sources. If you are unsure, try doing a quick Internet search for yourself to see what you can find.  If you can find it, so can a hacker.

Stay safe out there and never hesitate to reach out if you have additional questions around email or password security.

For further support from EarthLink, visit our Knowledgebase Support Center.

LinkedIn Passwords Stolen – What You Should Do

LinkedIn is a popular social network for professionals wanting to promote themselves and their careers, connect with current and former business contacts, and build their businesses. So you may already have joined the site.

If you are a LinkedIn user, please read on.

Yesterday, LinkedIn confirmed that some of their users’ passwords were stolen. While they are investigating the issue further, here is what they recommend that you do:

password security tips

  • If LinkedIn thinks your password was compromised, your account password will be disabled and you should get an email with instructions (but no links) giving you the first steps to resetting a new password.
  • Follow the steps in the first email and you’ll get a second email from LinkedIn with a password reset link.
  • LinkedIn also advises you to review their advice about password security.

Even if you don’t get an email from LinkedIn, you may want to proactively change your password, and use it as an opportunity to create an even stronger password.

As an Internet service provider with 18 years of experience safeguarding our members’ accounts, EarthLink has long promoted the value of creating strong passwords that you keep private and secure.

Want to know more about password security? Read our blog post about protecting your passwords, this post with a system you can use to generate strong passwords without repeating them, and this password help from the EarthLink Support Center.

If you wish to change your EarthLink password, use the Password Reset Tool on our My Account page.

We also had a link to download the free LastPass password manager from our eLink newsletter for Internet access members (scroll down to the Download section).

eHarmony users: Dating site eHarmony also confirmed a password security breach yesterday. You can read about that password security problem here.

LastPass has created tools to help you check if your LinkedIn password or eHarmony password was stolen.

Three Simple Steps to End Password Repetition

Pretend you’re a successful real estate mogul. You own properties all over the world. You want to keep these properties secure and you’ve installed deadbolts on all the doors of each building. You’re very efficient, and so rather than carry around a huge key ring, you’ve just coded all the locks to a single key.
This makes things so much easier. Especially for the kid you paid to watch your dog gets his hands on your master key. Of course, if we were millionaire real estate moguls, we’d never make a mistake like that. We’d get different keys for each property. So why do we make this mistake with our passwords?
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