Experts at SophosLabs™, Sophos's global network of virus, spyware and spam analysis centers, have reminded computer users to be wary of unsolicited emails posing as breaking news reports, following the widespread distribution in Australia of a malicious message which claims that Prime Minister John Howard is fighting for his life after a heart attack.
The emails pretend to be a link to a news story from The Australian, a daily newspaper, and start as follows:
SYDNEY, February 18, 2007 08:56pm (AEDT) - The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard have survived a heart attack. Mr Howard, 67 years old, was at Kirribilli House in Sydney, his prime residence, when he was suddenly stricken. Mr Howard was taken to the Royal North Shore Hospital where the best surgeons of Australia are struggling for his life.
The fake news story points to a website containing malicious code.
Clicking on the link takes users to a webpage which downloads malicious code to their PC, and then displays the real '404 page not found' error page used by The Australian on news.com.au. The viral code attempts to steal online banking usernames and passwords from web surfers.
John Howard is the latest in a long line of public figures to be used as bait by malware authors and hackers. Politicians such as Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and PW Botha have been have been used in the past. Furthermore, the promise of glimpses of glamorous pin-ups like Halle Berry, Anna Kournikova, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears or the stars of 'Sex and the City' have previously been used to help viruses spread.
"It seems the hackers are back to their old tricks of spamming out sensational headlines in the hope that computer users will forget to think before they click, and visit the website hosting the malignant code," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "The scammers have registered several domain names that appear to be associated with 'The Australian' newspaper, and have gone to effort to make people think that they really are visiting the genuine site by pointing to the real error page. Everyone should be on their guard against this kind of email con-trick, or risk having their PC infected."
Sophos customers are proactively defended against the attack, without requiring an update, through Sophos's Behavioral Genotype® technology.
"Sophos's proactive protection meant that even if customers clicked on the link, the malicious code would not be able to run," continued Cluley. "This type of defense becomes more and more important as cybercriminals escalate their attempts to infect computers by creating multiple versions of their malware."
In January, Sophos published its Security Threat Report 2007, which revealed the increasing use of the web as a vector for malicious attacks by hackers. The report can be downloaded from the Sophos website:
Sophos recommends companies automatically update their corporate virus protection, and run a consolidated solution at the email gateway to defend against viruses, spyware and spam.
Sophos is headquartered in Boston, US and Oxford, UK. More information is available at www.sophos.com.