"Bomb Blast." "Jackson is still alive: proof." "Obama cursed by Pope." These are just a few of the subjects used by cybercriminals last year to trick people into opening malware-infected e-mails.
Spam that uses the latest news headlines was just one of the hot trends last year in the world of cybercrime, according to McAfee's "Q4 Threats Report" (PDF), released Tuesday. The latest threat assessment also noted a rise in "hacktivism," or politically motivated cyberattacks.
Though spam levels in the fourth quarter actually dropped by 24 percent from the third quarter, the daily volume of junk mail around the world still averaged 135.5 billion per day. To reach that level, spammers relied heavily on news stories, especially tragedies.
The crash of an Air France plane and the death of Michael Jackson in June continued to be top themes for spammers to exploit throughout 2009, notes McAfee. The swine flu also triggered a slew of e-mails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control but which actually carried viruses in the form of Zeus Trojans. The surge in unemployment led to a rise in spam touting get-rich-quick schemes. And as always, terrorism and unrest around the world contributed to subject lines designed to scare people into opening malware in their in-box.
Hacktivism also rose as a form of cybercrime in 2009. In October, Polish government systems were reportedly attacked from somewhere in Russia. In December, a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army launched an attack against Twitter by using credentials stolen from a Twitter employee. Also in December, e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. were hacked about two weeks prior to the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Some believe the attack was the work of Russian freelance hackers hired by people looking to disprove global warming.
Across the world, the U.S. held the title as the top spam producer, followed by Brazil, and India. China took the top spot away from the U.S. as the leading purveyor of botnet zombies, which infect computers to send out spam.
"In Q4, we saw spam activity drop, but identified some interesting trends developing in terms of the geographic distribution of cyber threats and the types of threats executed," said Mike Gallagher, senior vice president and chief technology officer at McAfee Labs, in a statement. "China emerged as the worldwide leader in both zombie production and the execution of SQL-injection attacks, while Internet-based attacks played a bigger role and will continue to do so as cybercriminals target the most popular social destinations in 2010."