Cyber-blackmail and the Royal baby: online scams to watch out for this year

Cyber criminals will target mobiles and tablets - and use the birth of the Royal baby to deliver viruses around the world.

Cyber criminals will target mobiles and tablets - and use the birth of the Royal baby to deliver viruses around the world.

Staying safe on the web is simpler than you think – and it starts with understanding the type of online threats set to appear across the next 12 months.

This year will see the rise of new cyber threats such as 'madware' - mobile software which bombards handsets with intrusive adverts. Cyber criminals will also target tablet PCs.

Other scams set to rise this year include 'Ransomware', where cyber criminals attempt to scare users into paying a 'fine' for illegal online activities - locking up PCs and informing their owners they owe money to law enforcement agencies.

And according to advice site, there’s one event during 2013 that could bring easy-pickings for cybercriminals… the birth of a Royal baby.

It brings a huge opportunity for online crooks to spread viruses and spyware through rogue links disguised as news and pictures that relate to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new arrival.

[Related: The best 'hybrid' PCs - half laptop, half tablet]

Peter Wood, security expert for Know The Net, said: “With Prince William and Kate Middleton expecting their first child in July, scammers are certain to try and profit from the public interest.

“How many people would be tempted to click on an email promising ‘First pictures of the new royal baby’?

“Don’t open any emails if you don’t recognise the source. It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re in any doubt about the nature of an email, don’t click on any links or attachments, and don’t respond.

“If your email system allows it, simply mark it as spam, junk or a scam, otherwise delete it.”

Cyber security experts at Symantec, makers of the Norton internet protection software range, predict the rise of an altogether different threat – ransomware.

Rather than conning people into handing over their personal and financial details using disguised links and fake webpages, it takes a whole new approach to internet fraud.

After unwittingly downloading a virus or malware, ransomware can then lock a user’s computer, preventing access and displaying fake logos and images to try and pretend that the lockdown has been carried out by a law enforcement agency.

[Related: The best 'hybrid' PCs - half laptop, half tablet]

It then asks for money in return for unlocking the computer, paid via online sites, with those affected afraid to challenge it fearing they’ve done something wrong.

Often messages will appear claiming the user has been involved in “illegal activity”, before asking for the payment of a fine and setting a deadline for when it should be paid up.

In their report Ransomware: A Growing Menace, Symantec’s Gavin O’Gorman and Geoff McDonald state: “This malware is highly profitable, with as many as 2.9% of compromised users paying out.

“An investigation into one of the smaller players in this scam identified 68,000 compromised computers in just one month, which could have resulted in victims being defrauded of up to $400,000.”

The pair believe the ransomware industry could be worth a minimum of $5million per year from victims and have identified at least 16 different separate variants so far.

They say gangs are now moving from other types of web fraud into this newly profitable area with the majority of attacks focusing on users in Britain, Europe and America.

However, Mr McDonald and Mr O’Gorman predict the growing menace could cause in-fighting between cyber criminal gangs as it begins to hit the profitability of existing forms of malware.

Their report concludes: “Ransomware is a very obvious malware, it is not subtle, or discreet. The presence of ransomware on a computer will usually prompt the computer owner to clean the machine thoroughly, removing any malware from it.

“As the ransomware may have been installed by a separate piece of malware, that other malware will also be removed, cutting into the malware operator’s business model.”

Another Symantec expert, Kevin Haley, believes 2013 will be the year when cyber terrorism begins to bare its teeth.

On the company’s blog, he says: “We will see the cyber equivalent of saber rattling, where nation states, organisations, and even groups of individuals use cyber attacks to show their strength and ‘send a message’.”

He also explained that the prevalence of Mobile adware, known as “madware,” will also increase. It is found on devices after being hidden in some free apps users download believing they are safe.

It can send pop-up alerts, change browser settings and gather personal information with the number of apps featuring it increasing by 210% in the last nine months.

Mr Haley added: “Symantec anticipates an increase in malware attacks that steal payment credentials in social networks or trick users into providing payment details, and other personal and potentially valuable information, to fake social networks.

“This may include fake gift notifications and email messages requesting home addresses and other personal information. While providing non-financial information might seem innocuous, cybercriminals sell and trade this information with one another to combine with information they already have about you, helping them create a profile of you they can use to gain access to your other accounts.”

Other scams to watch out for, identified by Know The Net, include sales scams that promise downloads of discount vouchers. These are then often spread by people forwarding them onto friends via email or sharing them on social networks.

The organisation also points to festival and event ticket scams being on the rise recently with music fans warned to check search engines and forums to establish whether an online ticket reseller is legitimate or whether others have already fallen foul of them.

Peter Wood, security expert for Know The Net, also predicts the surge in popularity of tablet computer ownership will prove a boost for online criminals. He believes owners let down their guard, treating a tablet more like a mobile than the home computer they’d usually keep secure.

He said: “Remember to treat your tablet in the same way you do a laptop or desktop and only open links from people you know.

“It is important to check that apps are genuine before installing them.

“Another simple step to avoid being defrauded is to ensure you use a PIN to protect your device and set up strong passwords to secure your social networks and email applications.”