Nelson Mandela, one of Africa’s most recognizable figures, passed away last December 5. This unfortunate event did not stop cybercriminals from spewing their usual spam campaigns, this time attempting to leverage the African leader’s demise. What is interesting is that even before Mandela’s death, spammers were already using his name to capture users’ attention. Typically, scammers spur such campaigns after a newsworthy event occurred, but we already saw an activity even before Mandela’s passing. We found this particular sample in November:
Figure 1. Sample of spam found before Mandela’s death
The said email is purportedly from the “Nelson Mandela Foundation”. In the said message, recipients are informed that they are one of the winners of a significant cash prize (more than $5.5 million). To claim the money, users must provide their full name, address, and other personally-identifiable information (PII) and send these to a specific email address. After Mandela’s death, we found another spam campaign that is essentially a copycat of the previous spam we cited, though with minor modifications.
Figure 2. Sample of spam found after the African leader’s death was announced
Providing these information can be risky for users, as spammers may use these in their other, more menacing schemes. These spam are reminiscent of the classic Nigerian or 419 scams, which are known to offer users a chance to profit from a money transfer in exchange of their bank information. This scam eventually took on other forms, which include fake London Olympics and FIFA World Cup promos. Though dated, the scam remains a staple in the threat landscape. Just recently, we found several Ice IX servers that are also engaged in distributing Nigerian scams.
An effective spam campaign is not just defined by the exploit employed or the sophistication of the malware component. The strength of the social engineering lure can be a deciding factor whether a user would unwittingly fall into cybercriminals’ trap or not. This typically falls on the ability of the campaign to tap into users’ vulnerability such as their emotions and curiosity.
Mandela’s popularity, the news of his death, and the promise of cash prize may be convincing enough for some users to act against their better judgment, like divulging information to unverified parties. The same can be said to the recent typhoon Haiyan scams found on Facebook and spam campaigns.
To avoid this ruse, users must always be wary of the email messages they receive. If the message comes from an unknown source or is offering something too good to be true, it is best to delete it from your inbox. Trend Micro protects users from this threat by blocking such messages. For more information on how social engineering works, you may read our paper here.