Malicious programs are rampaging through Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, spreading themselves by taking over people's accounts and sending out messages to all of their friends and followers.
SAN FRANCISCO — It used to be that computer viruses attacked only your hard drive. Now they attack your dignity.
Malicious programs are rampaging through Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, spreading themselves by taking over people’s accounts and sending out messages to all of their friends and followers.
The result is people inadvertently telling co-workers and loved ones how to raise their IQs, make money instantly on Google or watch an awesome new video in which they star.
“I wonder what people are thinking of me right now?” said Matt Marquess, an employee at a San Francisco public-relations firm whose Twitter account was hijacked, showering his followers with messages that appeared to offer a $500 gift card to Victoria’s Secret.
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Marquess was clueless about the offers until a professional acquaintance asked him about them via e-mail. Confused, he logged into his account and noticed he had been shilling for lingerie for five days.
“No one had said anything to me,” he said. “I thought, how long have I been Twittering about underwear?”
In most cases, the perpetrators hope to profit from referral fees for directing people to sketchy e-commerce sites.
In other words, even the crooks are on social networks now, because millions of tightly connected potential victims are just waiting for them there.
Often the victims lose control of their accounts after clicking on a link “sent” by a friend. In other cases, the bad guys apparently scan for accounts with easily guessable passwords. (Marquess confesses that his password had been “abc123.”)
After discovering their accounts have been seized, victims typically renounce the unauthorized messages publicly, apologizing for inadvertently bombarding their friends. These messages — one might call them tweets of shame — convey a distinct mix of guilt, regret and embarrassment.
“I have been hacked; taking evasive maneuvers. Much apology, my friends,” wrote Rocky Barbanica, a producer for Rackspace Hosting, an Internet storage firm, in one such note.
Barbanica sent that out last month after realizing he had sent messages to 250 Twitter followers with a link and the sentence, “Are you in this picture?”
If they clicked, their Twitter accounts were similarly commandeered.
“I took it personally, which I shouldn’t have, but that’s the natural feeling. It’s insulting,” he said.
Earlier malicious programs could also cause a similar measure of embarrassment if they spread themselves through a person’s e-mail address book.
But those messages, traveling from computer to computer, were more likely to be stopped by anti-virus or firewall software.
On the Web, such measures offer little protection. (Although they are popularly referred to as viruses or worms, the new forms of Web-based malware do not technically fall into those categories, as they are not self-contained programs.)
Social networks have become prime targets of malware creators for good reason, security experts say.
People implicitly trust the messages they receive from friends, and are inclined to overlook the fact that, say, their cousin from Ohio is extremely unlikely to have caught them on a hidden Webcam.
Sophos says 21 percent of Web users report they have been a target of malware on social networks. Kaspersky Labs, a Russian security firm, says that on some days one in 500 links on Twitter point to bad sites that can infect an inadequately protected computer with more traditional hard-drive-jamming viruses.
Kaspersky says many more links are purely spam, frequently leading to dating sites that pay referral fees for traffic.
A worm that spread around Facebook recently featured a photo of a sparsely dressed woman and offered a link to “see more.”
Not so reliable
Adi Av, a computer developer in Ashkelon, Israel, encountered the image on the Facebook page of a friend he considered to be a reliable source of amusing Internet content.
A couple of clicks later, the image was posted on Av’s Facebook profile and sent to the “news feed” of his 350 friends.
“It’s an honest mistake,” he said. “The main embarrassment was from the possibility of other people getting into the same trouble from my profile page.”
Others confess to experiencing a more serious discomfiture.
“You feel like a total idiot,” said Jodi Chapman, who last month unwisely clicked on a Twitter message from a fellow vegan, suggesting she take an online intelligence test.
Chapman, who sells environmentally friendly gifts with her husband, uses her Twitter account to communicate with thousands of customers. The hijacking “filled me with a sense of panic,” she said.
“I was so worried that I had somehow tainted our company name by asking people to check their IQ scores.”
Social-networking attacks do not spare the experts. Last week, Lee Rainey, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research group, accidentally sent messages to dozens of his Twitter followers with a link and the line, “Hi, is this you? LOL.” He said a few people clicked.
“I’m worried that people will think I communicate this way,” Rainey said. “‘LOL,’ as my children would tell you, is not the style that I want to engage the world with.”