Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Have We Lost The Ability To Think For Ourselves?

What do scammers always use to their advantage? What enables con-artists to swindle their victims? What is the most important thing scammers always rely on? Only one thing, the victim's inability to think for himself/herself.

The other day I saw an add for an e-book about some magical way to cancel traffic fines or to get them refunded (I'm not going to mention the name of the book, because it is a load of hogwash and I'm not going to give it any form of exposure except for illustrating my point). For starters, some lines on the website were poorly formatted with some strange HTML coding. Certain pieces of the text were aligned to print over other pieces of text, making some parts of the page totally illegible. This was caused by some funny div-statements used by the web designer. (This guy obviously did not know what he was doing). But it is not important to know what the web designer did wrong, it is more important to note that the seller of this e-book could not be trusted. Why? Because if he can't even format his website properly (or at least get someone to do it for him), how can you be certain that the owner won't steal you money and sell you a piece of junk looking like his website? But lets forget about the poorly designed website for a moment and focus on the product he was trying to sell.

This book, will presumably help you to get your traffic fines cancelled or even refunded by exploiting flaws on parking and speeding tickets. The book is therefore aimed at traffic fines in general and not UNFAIR or INVALID traffic fines (as a matter of fact, the author makes no mention of the words UNFAIR or INVALID on his website). The site does not even contain a single encouragement to motorists to keep within the speeding limit, to put money in the parking meter or to drive safely within the bounds of the laws of the road. No, the sole purpose of this book is to get traffic fines cancelled or refunded, whether you committed an actual offence or not. Now think about this for a moment, why should you buy a book to exploit the loopholes of the law in order to save money in traffic fines, if you can save money by just sticking to the law? In other words you don't need to spend a single penny to save money, you just need to use your damn brain. This book is actually encouraging reckless driving and should be banned. If you really exceeded the speed limit for instance, why should you be able to get the traffic fine cancelled. You contravened a law and you should pay the fine (and don't give me that bull that loopholes in the law is there to be exploited). It is a whole different scenario if you were wrongfully accused of a traffic offence, but this is not what the book is about (or at least that is not the impression the site gave me). But the most disturbing fact is that there are people who will actually buy this book. Really, you got to be brain-dead to buy a piece of junk like this! And this is why I ask the humble question, have we lost the ability to think for ourselves?

Have you ever wondered why people accept so many things and question so very little? I believe this is often the result of a fast paced lifestyle, where there is no time to think about something, you need to make a decision immediately without contemplating. But can we blame our bad decisions on the pressures of modern day life? Any normal person possesses the ability to reason, but it seems as if more and more people are losing this ability by the day. Are we really losing the ability to think for ourselves, or are we deliberately suppressing our ability to reason? I always ask myself these questions when I analyse scam e-mails and fraudulent websites and most of the times I simply cannot understand how it is possible for a healthy mind to be swindled by obvious scams like these. And by obvious, I mean scams containing obvious and common signs of fraud and deceit.

I have to admit, not all scams are that obvious and it has to be mentioned that some of them are quite cleverly designed to look like the real thing. But the majority of scams contain telltale signs of deceit (whether it is a scam e-mail, a fraudulent website, an obscure add in a magazine, a call from an unknown individual or a dishonest salesman). The main problem is, many people only accept the solution or promise presented by the scammer and never pay attention to the means by which the scammer attempts to solve the problem or deliver the promise. The driving force behind the success of almost any scam is money and greed. You need a combination of both to make a scam successful and a greedy victim walks a greater risk of stepping into the trap set by the scammer, without realising it. But greed is not the only factor, ignorance is another weakness exploited by scammers, to improve their chances of successfully swindling their victims.

How long will we be able to use ignorance as an excuse? There are so much information about the latest scams, freely available on the web. Financial institutions post warning messages and examples of scam e-mails on their websites and some companies even communicate directly with their clients about the latest tricks and gimmicks used by scammers. With all this information at our doorsteps and sometimes even in our laps, how can we use the lame excuse of "I didn't know"? Computer illiteracy is also a stumbling block for many people, but computers have become part of our everyday lives and fewer people are computer illiterate these days. But there will always be a technological gap among computer users, because not everyone eat, sleep and drink computers. There will always be advanced and novice computer users and the latter are often at risk of falling for scams, where they don't comprehend the mechanics exploited by the scammer. But this can easily be remedied through a little bit of education. Most online banks and shopping sites have detailed guides and tutorials on the risks and signs of phishing, identity theft and other forms of fraud. These guides are often very detailed, but quite simple and easy to understand, with graphical illustrations and examples, specifically targeted at novice users. But advanced computer users should read these guides as well, because the fact that you know everything about computers does not make you immune to all forms of online fraud.

With all this information at our disposal, how is it still possible for some scammers to swindle their victims? I believe people are not taking the time to familiarise themselves with the risks of online fraud. If you don't know how to use the address bar of your browser, or why the address bar turns green on certain sites or how use your status bar to preview the address of a link, you are like a suicide bomber. It is like driving a car without the proper training, you are a danger to yourself and everyone around you. Like I mentioned earlier, the information published by banks and online shops, regarding the methods used by scammers to swindle their victims, are not that hard to understand (and for goodness sake if you don't understand these guides ask someone you trust to explain them to you). So if we have all the information about the techniques used by scammers and if they are easy to comprehend, why on earth do people still fall victim to these obvious scams? Simply because they don't read the information available to them. If your bank account was emptied by a bunch of crooks, because you clicked on a link in some e-mail about updating your personal details or something like that, then you are either living on a different planet or you haven't been paying attention to the warnings communicated by your bank. Where have you been in the last decade or so? These scams have been an active threat to the online community for several years now, so how is it possible that you haven't heard of these scams before? Honestly, people need to wake up and smell the coffee! Open your eyelids and pay attention to your surroundings! Start to THINK for yourself and stop depending on other people to do it for you!

Unethical marketers are able to convince some people to buy stuff they don't need, simply because some people are like zombies, allowing outside influences to manipulate their thoughts. Scammers follow the same tactics, they force the victim into believing everything they say in their scam e-mails or on their scam websites. The promise of millions of dollars, a valuable object or the threat of suspension of your bank account, is often so sudden (or promising), that people forget to think about the source of the e-mail or the means by which the scammer are communicating with them. The initial contact made by a scammer is a crucial point in the development of a scam. If you can't identify the scam early on, chances are that you won't realise you are being conned, until the damage is already done. The only way to identify these scams is to use common sense and a bit of scepticism. I'm not saying you need to be over-suspicious towards every e-mail and phone call you receive, but you need to look very critical at every form of communication, where you don't know the person on the other side. In other words, ask yourself the following common sense questions (where the answer to each question is obviously NO): Will the bank ask for my credit card number over the telephone? Will my bank send me an e-mail request to update my personal e-mails? Will an official from another country contact a total stranger, in connection with a multi-million dollar transaction? Will the Executive Director of the FBI use a free e-mail service to contact me about some scammers who MAY have contacted me in the past? Will a company like PayPal or Amazon make spelling and grammatical errors in their e-mails? If this is such a great business opportunity or such a revolutionary product, why haven't I heard about it before? Is it possible to make loads of money by simply distributing a chain letter received through the post? The list goes on and on...

You see, by asking a couple of critical questions you will soon be able to identify whether an e-mail, phone call or a letter in the post is a scam or not. It just needs a little bit of reasoning and common sense, there is no rocket science to it. But if you are too lazy to think for yourself, deliberately ignoring the warning signs of common fraud, then you deserve to be scammed!

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, analysers of security software and raising awareness about internet fraud and malicious software

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Quick Look at Kaspersky Internet Security 2010

I recently did an in-depth review of the latest Internet security suite from Kaspersky Lab, Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 (KIS 2010). It is certainly an improvement over previous instalments, providing a more comprehensive level of protection against malware based threats. Some components have been divided into smaller, separate components, making the application very flexible in terms of customisation. What does that mean for the user? The user is able to disable unnecessary components in cases where similar protection is provided by a standalone application, for instance a spam filter or parental control application. There are a lot of good things to say about this security suite, but it is definitely not without its faults, I will discuss these in detail a little bit later.

Installation and setup
Very easy and straightforward. Getting the application up and running is child's play and the process is fairly automated, meaning very little user interaction is required during the installation procedure. I have a little bit of criticism against Kaspersky Lab going the opt-out route regarding the participation in the Kaspersky Security Network. With "opt-out" I mean that you need to explicitly opt out from participation and I would like to see this the other way around. But at least Kaspersky Lab gives you the option to opt out, unlike other software developers who never even inform you of participation in their usage data collection programs.

The software updates itself quite often, with definition updates released several times a day. The software checks for updates on an hourly basis, but certain users report that actual updates are published every three hours on average. Nevertheless, Kaspersky Lab stays up to date with the latest threats and outbreaks, to the benefit of every user of their software.

User Interface
It is quite easy to use the software, making it an attractive option for novice users. Most of the components work out of the box and customising them is no rocket science. However this can't be said of all the components. The firewall component is the least user friendly and making changes to the firewall rules, to make it behave in a way that suit your needs, is an extremely frustrating and time consuming operation.

You won't need a monster PC to run Kaspersky Internet Security 2010, but you need at least 1 GB of RAM and an 1GHz processor to run the security suite on Windows XP, without compromising the overall performance of your computer (for Vista and Windows 7, double these figures to 2GB of RAM and a 2GHz processor). Off course you will notice a slight decrease in performance, but nothing major. With the processing power of today's standard office computers, you shouldn't have any trouble running the software on one of these.

Real-time Protection
This is where Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 packs the punch. This security suite brags with a whopping 13 different security components, each one of them providing tailor made protection against specific types of threats. You are basically protected against malware (viruses, spyware, trojans, rootkits, etc.), network attacks, spam, phishing attacks, intrusive advertising through banners and even your kids are protected against inappropriate content on the Web. There is more to Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 than meets the eye and only a look under the hood can reveal the different levels of protection provided by this world class security suite.

Threat Protection Tests
This is the core of every security software review, in other words, can the software protect me when the pawpaw hits the fan? Malware tests were satisfactory, although it missed a couple of threats. Malicious files are isolated properly and accidental execution of a known threat is nearly impossible. The heuristic scanner is fairly clever too and the software defended itself perfectly when I tried to disable it by force.

The firewall fared well against the couple of leak tests I threw at it, but I was able to determine the computer's MAC address and the fact that it was up and running, with a simple port scan from another computer. The proper behaviour of a firewall in this case would be to hide the computer completely from an unauthorised computer, connected to the same network. The firewall detected and blocked the port scan, but it did not blacklist the offending PC, because it assumed that its IP address was spoofed. I would have liked an option to block the attacking computer completely, but hey, this is not a perfect world.

The spam filter is the only component in Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 that did not do so well during this review. At first I had loads of issues getting it to work in Thunderbird 2 and secondly, I discovered that there is no support for Thunderbird 3 at all (perhaps in the future?). The spam filter operates quite well in Outlook Express but the actual spam filtering left me wanting. I have to mention though, that the accuracy of the spam filter improved, after training it with more or less 150 spam e-mails, but even after all that training it still allowed obvious spam e-mails to come through. So it is disappointing to see a spam filter, with so much potential (Heuristic analysis, GSG technology for image recognition, analysis of RTF files and self-training text recognition with iBayes), struggling so much when it comes to actual spam filtering.

Value Added Protection
Like I mentioned earlier, during the discussion of the real-time protection, you also get a parental control and anti-banner component with Kaspersky Internet Security 2010. These components are disabled by default, because not everyone will have use for them. However, these simple tools are really impressive in terms of functionality, they do exactly what you would expect from them. The parental control component is easy to configure and very little configuration is needed, because it relies heavily on heuristic detection of inappropriate websites. Heuristic analysis is often something that delivers either a lot of false positives or false negatives, but the heuristic analyser of the parental control component is totally different, it is successful at detecting inappropriate sites, with very few false positives.

People with a vendetta against banner advertising will find the anti-banner component very helpful. Once again it relies on heuristic analysis to detect common banner sizes. The parental control and the anti-banner components, each has a white-list and a black-list, which can be used to explicitly allow (white-list) or block (black-list) specific websites.

Kaspersky Internet Security 2010, is a well rounded Internet security package. There is most certainly some room for improvement in the firewall and spam filtering division, but apart from its faults, it still remains one of the leading Internet security suites in the market. I highly recommend it for home and office use.

To win the battle against cyber crime we need comprehensive protection against online threats. We need to take the necessary precautions to keep our computers free from malware and unauthorised access. In order to achieve this goal, we need the necessary protection on our computers BEFORE an attack strikes. An Internet security suite like Kaspersky Internet Security 2010 can help you achieve this goal.

One golden rule applies to computer security, prevention is better than cure!

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, analysers of security software and raising awareness about internet fraud and malicious software. For more details about this security suite, read my in-depth review of Kaspersky Internet Security 2010.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Cyber Top Cops Is Back!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008, the date of my last (but luckily not my final) article. More than a year and a half has passed since my last article. E-mails to cybertopcops.com were left unanswered and the site was no longer updated. Most people who made contact with me during this time, noticed that the site was outdated and no longer maintained. I'm sure a lot of people asked why, so for those who wondered why I disappeared into thin air, here is the explanation.

Those of you who know me well, is aware of the fact that CyberTopCops.com is not my day job and that I'm a very busy man (I work and study at the same time). During this time I took on quite a lot of responsibilities at the firm where I work, which resulted in a lot of overtime. All of the overtime took a bite out of my study time and quite obviously all the study time took a bite out of my CyberTopCops time. To add insult to injury I also had to attend to some personal matters, so I had quite a lot on my plate during the last year and a half. So I hope all my supporters will understand and forgive me for not answering their e-mails (especially my good friend John Masters, thanks for your support during these tough times).

So have things changed all of a sudden? Well, to be honest, no. I kept CyberTopCops.com online because I wanted to come back and continue to fight cyber crime. I tried to make a comeback several times but circumstances prevented me from doing so. I have to mention though, that I did some work on the SHPAMEE project during this time, so even though it seemed that CyberTopCops.com stood still, some of the work continued to happen behind the scenes. I also expanded my PC lab with another computer and converted all my machines from Windows to Fedora Linux (except the one I use to review security software and analyse malware samples). A word of thanks to everyone who continued to submit malware samples, malware sites and spam samples during this time (another BIG reason why I kept the site up and running).

OK, so if things are still as hectic as before, where will I find the time to keep the site updated and write articles? Well I did most of my work during the last couple of public holidays we had over here in South Africa, so I guess I will wait for the next public holiday before I write my next article. No... just kidding. I honestly don't know. All I know is that the desire to return to cyber crime fighting has motivated me enough to do something about the problem. I guess I will have to manage my time a little better and perhaps get some help to keep the site up and running, but I'm a bit of a sceptic and prefer to work alone.

A couple of major events took place in the cyber security field during my absence. SpywareInfo.com expired and was sold to the highest bidder (and yes not to a passionate cyber crime fighter but someone only interested in making as much profit as possible). The same happened to merijn.org (since it had the same owner as SpywareInfo.com). You can read more about this at DSLReports.com. Luckily the good people at SpywareInfo.com was able to continue their work at SpywareInfoForum.com and merijn.org moved to merijn.nu. PLEASE NOTE: The new owners of SpywareInfo.com and merijn.org have been using them for malicious purposes, so I do not recommend visiting them. But perhaps the biggest shock of them all was when Castlecops closed shop in December 2008. This was a huge blow to the cyber security community but I'm sure most of the volunteers have already joined forces with other cyber crime fighting groups. So I guess it is clear I've been out of the loop for quite some time and I have some catching up to do.

I constantly witness cases where people fall victim to cyber crime due to a lack of education. People still walk blindly into the traps set by phishing scammers and malware developers. I recently helped a client to get rid of over 300 infections on a single PC (and another couple hundred infections on every other PC that was connected to the same network), just because they failed to install anti-virus software on their network. This was a classic example of how one PC can cause several infections on every PC connected to the same network. And believe me, the client was quite surprised when I explained the dangers of data mining, identity theft and keystroke logging, not even to speak of the possibility that their PC's were used as hosts for spam distribution.

People often think I exaggerate when I explain the dangers of malware and spam, but their views suddenly change when someone breaks into their bank account or if someone hacks into their e-mail account. The ignorance of most people continues to amaze me. With all the real life stories out there of people falling victim to cyber crime and all the warnings from banks and financial institutions, people still go by their day to day activities without taking appropriate precautions against these threats.

So how can we solve this problem? First of all education (yes I know I tend to sound like a broken gramophone, but one can never emphasise this too much), because education empowers our online community with the know-how to stay safe online without the use of fancy and expensive tools. I also believe mainstream media should play a more prominent role in the fight against cyber crime. We need more stories about victims of cyber crime in the most popular publications. I'm not sure about the press in other countries, but here in South Africa there is almost never a story about phishing incidents or 419 scams (many people over here still don't even know what it is) in our local newspapers or prime time news on TV. Why? Because these stories don't sell newspapers or keep viewers hooked to their TV's. Why? Because journalists don't see them as newsworthy. I realise you can't write an article on every murder, theft or kidnapping, but for goodness sake, make some space for cyber related crimes in your newspapers, magazines and news bulletins on TV and radio. We need to make people aware of these incidents and by making people aware you call them to action to learn more about these threats and how to defend themselves against cyber criminals. Finally, we need better legislation and enforcement of those laws. It makes no sense to have perfect laws but no one is willing and able to enforce them.

So CyberTopCops.com is back in action and I hope to bring you a brand new article once a week, however, I can't promise anything at this moment, but I'll do my very best.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, analysers of security software and raising awareness about internet fraud and malicious software.