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Computer Viruses and Spam Ruled in 2003 ? Be Prepared!
By Ira Wilsker
        The final statistics on spam emails and viruses have been released by several organizations and companies, and it was not a good year for computer users who had to deal with them.  Through awareness of what happened last year, we may be better prepared to deal with what we may encounter in 2004.
        Even though President Bush signed the ?Can Spam? act, and it recently went into effect, the spam tracking companies have found no decrease in the amount of spam emails being sent, and in fact there are indications that it is still increasing at a rapid rate.  According to the e-mail filtering service Brightmail

 (www.brightmail.com), the percentage of all emails in December, 2003, that were spam was 58%, compared to the January 2003 rate of 42%, a substantial increase.  Of the spam filtered in December, Brightmail determined that 21% was for products advertising general goods and services, 18% was financially oriented, 18% was adult oriented, 9% was for outright scams, 6% each for health, leisure, or internet related, 3% was spiritual or religiously oriented, and 3% were for clear frauds.


        The marketing research and information company Synovate (www.synovate.com) found that the average American received an average of 155 spam emails per week, for each email account used.  One out of five Americans received over 200 spams per week, in each account.  Statistically, men receive more spam than women each week, 164 compared to 147, and there is no major difference in the rate of spam based on age ranges.  Geographically, people living in the northeast received the fewest spam emails at 131 per week, while those of us living in the south received the most at 163.  While many computer security experts have stated that the best way to fight spam is to simply delete it, 11% acknowledged having a transaction initiated by a spam mail.


        The commercial spam filtering company Commtouch (www.commtouch.com) reported that the single most common subject used by spammers was ?Viagra?, or a substitute for Viagra.  In order to attempt to slip by the spam filters commonly used, the spammers uses over 50 variations of the spelling of Viagra, according to Commtouch.  They also reported that 28% of all spam contained some form of trickery in the subject line in order to penetrate the spam filters, and be delivered to the recipient.


        Far more destructive than spam mail was the proliferation of computer viruses, worms, Trojans, and spyware.  According to the antivirus software company Panda (www.pandasoftware.com), over 3700 new viruses and worms, including variants, appeared in 2003, which was about a third more than appeared in 2002.  Documented and projected damage from these digital vandals was enormous.  The British security company ?mi2g? (www.mi2g.com) calculated that the most damaging viruses and their variants of 2003, in terms of dollars of damage around the world, were Sobig ($36.7 billion), Klez ($19.4 billion), Yaha ($11.3 billion), Mimail ($10.5 billion ? and still very active in 2004), and Swen ($10 billion).


        Mi2g also saw, ?a meteoric rise in electronic crime: business interruption, financial fraud, "phishing" scams, extortion demands post distributed denial of service attacks, espionage and mass spam campaigns.?  They attribute much of this increase to global criminal syndicates, and extremist group activities, the 2003 rate being several times more than in 2002.  According to ?mi2g?, the most frequent victims were home users, and small to medium businesses.  Users of broadband internet access were more frequent targets than dialup users.  There also was a dramatic increase in ?pfishing? and other elaborate scams to ensnare victims into disclosing sensitive personal and financial information through fraudulent email and websites appearing to be authentic banking, retail, or other commercial websites. Many customers of major banks, retailers, credit card companies, and online services were duped into providing their information to thieves who used that information to conduct financial transactions, steal their identities, hijack their internet access for nefarious purposes, or commit other criminal activities.


        Mi2g also predicts that 2004 will see a worsening of cyber problems, with the rate of spam increasing to 66% of all email (despite recent US and European laws designed to restrict the practice), spam costing the world economy $60 billion in lost productivity and other costs. Mi2g also predict that there will be a greater merging of spam, viruses, worms, and Trojans in 2004, where personal computers hijacked by viruses and worms will be used to generate spam at far higher numbers than in 2003, or attack other computers. Where virus writers used to be vandals seeking notoriety, 2004 will see a dramatic increase of viruses and worms created for financial gain, identity theft, or infrastructure attack, with some of the most dangerous being politically motivated.  It is predicted that while much of the politically motivated ?hactivism? will originate in Moslem countries, with unofficial reprisals from American, British, Indian, and Israeli hackers.  ?Pfishing?, the attempt to steal sensitive personal information by tricking the victim into thinking that he is responding to a legitimate request from his credit card company, bank, or retailer with which he has a relationship, is expected to continue to increase, resulting in a continued loss of confidence in our established institutions.

        Our personal risks can be reduced by using common sense, deleting all spam and other questionable emails without opening them, using updated antivirus, firewall, and anti-spyware software, and never disclosing personal information without verifying the necessity and destination of that information.

        As the gruff sergeant on the ?Hill Street Blues? said at the end of every roll call, ?Be careful out there!?

Ira Wilsker is the Director of the Management Development Program at Lamar Institute of Technology, in Beaumont, TX. He also host a twice weekly radio talk show on computer topics on KLVI, and writes a weekly technology column for the Examiner newspaper. Ira is also a police officer who specializes on cybercrime, and has lectured internationally in computer crime and security. Ira is a graduate of the Jefferson County (TX) Sheriff's Academy, and has an MBA from the University of Maryland.

 

Last Update: 2003

 

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