Michael Jackson's death spawns malware, more scams

No surprise, but hackers use pop star's demise to dupe users

As security researchers expected, hackers have begun to use the death of pop star Michael Jackson to infect people's PCs.

Starting late last week and continuing today, messages posing as breaking news alerts from the likes of CNN and the Los Angeles Times have been reaching users' mailboxes, said several security companies, including Sophos, Symantec and Trend Micro.

Some of the messages, which have appeared only in Spanish and Portuguese so far, include links claiming to lead to video of Jackson in an ambulance, or even of his body postmortem.

The links, of course, take users to nothing of the kind. Instead, they force a pop-up message that instructs the user to update their copy of Adobe's Flash.

The Flash update ploy may be a now-standard hacker tactic, but it's worked extremely well in the past. Last summer, for example, fake CNN.com news notifications led massive numbers of users to thousands of hacked Web sites that served up fake Flash software.

According to Trend Micro's analysis, the phony news e-mails try to trick users into downloading a bot Trojan that hijacks PCs, then awaits instructions from the botnet's controller.

"Quite notable is that even if a user chooses the Cancel button, which should allow him/her to quit from downloading the file, the site will continue to push the download of the codec, leaving users with no choice but to deal with the malicious file downloaded into their system," Trend's Argie Gallego, one of the company's anti-spam research engineers, said in a blog post today.

Also new today, said Sophos, is a malware-free scam that tries to get people to send money to the bogus "Michael Jackson Organization." In an e-mail that calls Jackson "a true humanitarian," scammers beg people to "send your donations to us via money gram/western union."

Last week, Sophos' senior technology consultant Graham Cluley predicted that malware attacks would soon begin to make use of Jackson's demise. He was spot on.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see hackers claiming that they have top-secret footage from the hospital, perhaps [allegedly] taken by the ambulance people, that then asks you to install a video codec," said Cluley last week.

Symantec has added more scamsto an expect-soon list, including spam that leads users to fake antivirus software, Twitter tweets that include links to malicious sites and Facebook messages that dupe users into downloading Koobface, a worm that has appeared, disappeared and reappeared on that social networking site and others.

Things will get worse before they get better, argued Sophos in a post to its security labs' blog on Friday.

"We have not seen many samples of this malware spam, and distribution seems limited so far," said Sophos. "It is likely that more Michael Jackson-themed malware and spam is on its way."

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