Erin Earley is editor of Lavasoft News and has written extensively about computer security issues.
According to a recent study by fraud-tracking firm Javelin Research, identity theft is becoming more prevalent with the number of victims rising 22 percent from 2007 to 2008. One reason sited for the increase is the worsening economy.
"Identity fraud has been dropping until last year, boom, there was a turn-up,"said Javelin Research's James Van Dyke in an interview with Reuters. "The only thing we can logically attribute that to is the economy. If people need to make money, and decide to do so illicitly, identity fraud is the logical opportunity."
Experts and law-enforcement officials who track online crime attest that scams have escalated in the past six months, capitalizing on anxiety over the recession to target both businesses and consumers, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. Research company Gartner sited reports of cyber attacks on banks throughout the world having doubled in the past six months; at the same time, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Internet Crime Complaint Center, which receives consumer complaints of cyber crime and fraud, has confirmed an increase in cyber attacks.
Without a doubt, the underground malware economy is booming. During November 2008 through January 2009, malware analysts at Lavasoft (where I work) saw a 169 percent increase in the total number of threats added to the Detection Database, compared to the three preceding months.
What accounts for this trend? While it may be difficult to directly prove whether criminals are becoming increasingly desperate -- as some sources contend " or even if more individuals are joining the ranks of the online crime world -- as others say -- certain types of attacks are being linked to the economic downturn. Today's cyber criminals know how to take advantage of current events to profit from consumers.
Many of the ploys that have kicked into high gear in recent months are the techniques that prey on the vulnerabilities of today's consumers, playing off of users' fears to leverage the current financial climate. Currently, the increased desire to save money, make money, or read news about the economic situation around the world makes unsuspecting computer users easier targets for misleading marketing and schemes.
Lavasoft malware analysts have seen an increase in techniques related to exploiting the fear and worry around the recession, shown by way of spam manipulating the credit crunch and job market -- topics attempting to spur interest either by focusing on dire news or, in contrast, with uplifting promises.
"Quite a few messages we see are from job agencies and spiritual publications who referenced the current economic climate quite heavily. The spam related to employment typically targets job seekers who have recently lost their jobs; the spiritual publications attempt to take advantage of people's despair at facing financial trauma to peddle their wares," Andrew Browne, Lavasoft malware analyst, says of the recent types of spam messages being seen.
Fake or misleading security software, also referred to as "scareware," is another threat that users are increasingly faced with, and must be vigilant about avoiding. An innocent attempt to keep personal data safe is what leads some users to fall for these rogue programs.
"Today's consumers are, understandably, very worried about malware that allows unauthorized access to their bank accounts, compromises their privacy, or leaves them vulnerable to identity theft. Ironically, the desire to be protected from these threats is a significant factor that drives the increase of financially motivated malware in the form of fake security software," Browne says.