Long before you'll ever come down with swine flu, you'll be exposed to another kind of virus sweeping the world: A global outbreak of online scams and swindles preying on your fears of the so-called aporkalypse. In coming days when you receive emails offering a variety of ways to ward off swine flu, you can be sure of one thing: it's hogwash.
Computer viruses earned their name for good reason: They multiply and spread just like human viruses. And right now, Internet security experts say, swine flu scams are spreading at pandemic levels.
To protect yourself, they say, watch out for four kinds of threats:
• Swine Spam: At various points over the last few days, swine flu has been mentioned in four percent of all the spam on the Web - that's billions of emails. Many of the email subject lines are engineered to grab your interest:
- "Madonna Caught Swine Flu!"
- "Salma Hayek Caught Swine Flu!"
- "Swine Flu in Hollywood."
Modern-day snake oil salesmen know people around the world are extremely interested in the subject and will open their emails, click on their links, and get sucked into a netherworld of phony Websites and bogus cures.
"The (swine flu) scare has spawned a spamming frenzy, like sharks smelling blood in the water," writes Mayur Kulkarni of Symantec, a leading Internet security company.
If you start clicking on links or video in these emails, personal information and credit card details can be harvested.
• Malware: Malware writers - people who create programs designed to infiltrate and damage computer systems - are beginning to take advantage of swine flu. They're sending emails with PDF helpful-sounding attachments. One, for instance, is named "Swine influenza frequently asked questions.pdf."
"Unfortunately, if you get this far, you've been infected," Kevin Haley of Symantec writes, adding: "Symantec detects the malicious PDF file as Bloodhound.Exploit.6 and the dropped malicious file contained in the PDF as InfoStealer."
How to avoid this problem? "Keep your security software up to date," Haley writes, "keep your systems patched, and be suspicious of unsolicited email that talks about topical subjects. Be very careful when such email includes attachments, links to websites, or videos that it says you should view."
• Swine Flu "Cures" and "Remedies"
Back in 1918-1919 during the devastating Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people, snake oil salesmen peddled all kinds of products, including electric blankets to dry out damp sick beds; mustard oil baths to kill off the flu bugs; and incandescent gas burners to sterilize the air; and even mints to kill the germs on your tongue.
Today, the Internet makes it a breeze to set up shop and start selling nostrums. When the H1N1 scare hit the headlines, Web experts saw an instant thirty fold increase in the registration of Websites with the "swine flu." Examples include: SwineFluRelief, SwineFluRemedy, and SwineFluSurvival. Experts suspect these domains will be used to push scams on people searching for protection against the virus.
"The last thing any consumer needs right now is to be conned by someone selling fraudulent flu remedies," says Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
One example: New promotions on the Web assert that swine flu - and many other ailments - can be eradicated by using so-called colloidal silver, a mixture that includes very fine silver particles. One Website advises: "Here are 7 important steps you should consider taking right now in order to protect yourself and your family." It goes on: "Step #1: Get a high-quality colloidal silver generator NOW, while they are still available."
So what's the deal with colloidal silver? "Colloidal silver as a cure-all is a fraud with a long history," writes David Colker in the Los Angeles Times. "In 1999, the FDA banned claims of therapeutic value for over-the-counter colloidal silver products. Studies showed the so-called tonic could be dangerous, causing seizures and kidney damage. Pregnant women were specifically warned that colloidal silver could cause harm to fetuses. "
[Click here to see the FDA's growing list of "fraudulent" H1N1 influenza products.]
• Counterfeit or Foreign-Made Knock-Offs:
Experts warn that you also should be alert to emails and Websites offering lower-price antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. Buyer beware: Many of these sites sell either counterfeit or foreign-made knock-offs of brand-name drugs. Gambling on these cheaper and illegally imported products could risk your life, security experts say.
So, how can you protect yourself?
The Better Business Bureau recommends:
• Avoid opening e-mail from an unknown source and do not click on any links in the body of the e-mail or open any attachments. Instead, delete the e-mail or report it to the Federal Trade Commission by forwarding the e-mail to email@example.com.
• Don't believe online offers for vaccinations against swine flu because a vaccine does not exist. For more information on swine flu and updates on progress in fighting the outbreak, go to www.cdc.gov/swineflu
• Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up to date and all operating system security patches have been installed. If your computer becomes infected as the result of a spam e-mail about swine flu, you can report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.
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