Panos Anastassiadis didn’t click on the fake subpoena that popped into his Inbox on Monday morning, but he runs a computer security company.
Others were not so lucky.
In fact, security researchers say thousands have fallen victim to an e-mail scam in which senior managers such as Anastassiadis are told that they have been sued in a federal court and must click on a Web link to download court documents.
Victims of the crime are then taken to a phony Web site where they are told they need to install browser plug-in software to view the documents. That software gives the criminals access to the victim’s computer.
This type of targeted e-mail attack, called “spear-phishing,” is a variation on the more common “phishing” attack.
Both attacks use fake e-mail messages to try to lure victims to malicious Web sites, but with spear-phishing the attackers try to make their messages more believable by including information tailored to the victim.
The e-mail sent to Anastassiadis, CEO of Cyveillance, included his name, company’s name and even the correct phone number, said James Brooks, director of product management with the security vendor.
“Given the nature of our business, he suspected something right away and forwarded it to our operations center.”
However, Verisign’s iDefense division has tracked more than 1,800 victims who clicked on the message. “This is probably one of the largest spear-phishing attacks we’ve seen to date in terms of number of victims,” said Matt Richard, director of iDefense’s Rapid Response Team.
Verisign believes that the criminals behind this scam are the same ones who launched an attack last month that used fake e-mails that appeared to be from the Better Business Bureau.
And the U.S. courts have been warning computer users for years now of an ongoing scam where victims are told that they have failed to show up for jury duty and then asked to enter sensitive information into a phishing site.
“The malware itself is not particularly interesting. It was clever that it went straight to CEOs and it didn’t really blast the whole world,” said John Bambenek, a security researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and volunteer at the Internet Storm Center.
“For someone who doesn’t know what a legal document looks like, it kind of passes the smell test,” he added. “When they see they’ve been subpoenaed, people panic and they click on things they shouldn’t.”
The mail directs the victim to a Web site that ends in “…uscourts.com” and is very similar to a legitimate .gov domain used by California courts, Bambenek said.
The Web server delivering the malware is based in China, while the computer that then controls thevictim’s computer is based in Singapore.
The malware used in this scam was not identified by the majority of antivirus companies, although most were updating their software to flag it, Bambenek added.
By Monday afternoon, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts had posted a note to its Web site, warning of the fake e-mails. “This is not a valid subpoena,” said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman with the office. “Subpoenas are not issued like that to individuals unless they’re a party in the case.”
The U.S. federal court system heavily relies on e-mail messages to help lawyers communicate with each other and the court throughout cases, and IT staff in legal firms have traditionally had to work hard to make sure that these messages are not blocked by spam filters.
Now they’ll have one more thing to worry about: whether the court notices they’re getting are legitimate notices or an online attack.
On Wednesday, online scammers started up the subpoena phishing scam again Wednesday.
Verisign, which estimates that about 2,000 people were tricked by the scam on Monday, believes Wednesday’s attack was on a much smaller scale.
Late Wednesday the company’s iDefense group had tracked only about 100 infections, said Matt Richard, director of iDefense’s Rapid Response Team.
Security experts have been fighting the phishers. By Tuesday they’d managed to get the first phishing Web site taken down, only to have the second one pop up on Wednesday.
Because the attack targets such a small number of victims, anti-spam companies have had a hard time filtering the e-mails and antivirus companies have been similarly pressed to block the malicious software that the attackers are using.
Late Wednesday, antivirus companies were not blocking this latest version of the malware, said John Bambenek