Computer Crime Research Center

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E-mail comes under attack

Date: June 28, 2004
Source: The Advertiser


Spam, fraud, viruses assault Internet's 'killer' application...
USA Today

For years, consumers and corporations raved about e-mail's potential.
Now they're fretting about its future because of a growing belief that e-mail – the vaunted "killer app" – is in deep trouble.

E-mail is evolving into a hacking tool that threatens its usefulness for communications and commerce, security experts say. An avalanche of junk e-mail, scams to filch personal information and sophisticated computer viruses cost more than $15 billion in personal losses and lost workplace productivity last year, market researchers say.

When spam reached epidemic levels last year, the industry attacked it with technology, lawsuits and legislation. But now new forms of spam, phishing attacks and viruses are being exploited by cybercrooks. The digital-crime wave has shaken trust in e-mail, forcing some companies to restrict its use and consumers to opt for other forms of online communication, such as instant messaging and personal Web diaries.

"E-mail gives criminals what they want: a degree of anonymity," says Bruce Townsend, who coordinates cybercrime investigations for the U.S. Secret Service. "Law enforcement does not have the financial or technological resources to cope with all these cases. But we have a lot of techniques" to find perpetrators.

E-mail misbehavior is so rampant that America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo! are crafting a "caller ID" – like standard for e-mail messages, though the system is at least a year away. E-mail security companies, meanwhile, are rolling out products that act as early warning detectors of viruses.

Mucking with e-mail

For now, the bad guys are winning.

While Microsoft feverishly issues software to patch security holes, and Internet service providers fortify firewalls to shield customers from virulent e-mail, the pace of sophisticated spam and scams is accelerating.

Leading the attacks on e-mail:

Spam. Despite a federal anti-spam law to curb billions of illegal porn and miracle-drug e-mails daily, many of the largest spammers successfully cover their tracks.

What that means for the bottom line: It costs companies nearly $2,000 per employee a year in lost productivity, double from a year ago, Nucleus Research says.

Phishing. Phishing schemes take spam another step: They trick consumers into surrendering personal data by responding to spam that appears to come from a legitimate bank or e-commerce site.

Many phishing expeditions successfully "fish" information from victims because they look real. The e-mail often includes company logos and Web links and frequently preys on customers of eBay, PayPal and Citibank.

An estimated 63 million people buy products and bank on the Internet, says technology research company Gartner. More than half of the nearly 2 million phishing victims said it led to identity theft, in which criminals used their personal information to pose as them and buy goods, Gartner says.

Security experts fear that such attacks will scare consumers from online banking and e-commerce.

Viruses. Nearly 1,000 viruses surfaced in May, the most since December 2001, after Nimda and Code Red hit, says computer security company Sophos. There are 90,800 coursing the Internet, up 11 percent from a year ago.

E-mail viruses like SoBig and MyDoom leave security holes in millions of PCs. Hackers can remotely command infected PCs to send spam and phishing scams.

E-mail's role changing

The pitfalls have forced consumers to use e-mail more carefully. Many are eschewing bulky attached documents out of fear they will be poached by hackers or spiked by their recipient.

"I'm less likely to attach a document knowing the recipient may delete it out of (fear) of receiving a virus," says Aaron Itzkowitz, 40, an account manager for a software company in Florida. "And I will delete an unfamiliar e-mail rather than open possibly infected e-mail."



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Total 58 comments
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