Monday, May 14, 2012

Update: Travelers alert concerning fake update alert popups

Recently the IC3 released an advisory containing sparse detail that travelers abroad are being infected via fake update alerts for unnamed products that were being delivered over compromised hotel connections.  I wrote a speculative article about this, and wanted to provide some clearer detail about what appears to be happening.

First:  It does not appear that the "real" update mechanisms for any of the likely products are compromised.  I still can't recommend you do *any* updates while traveling.  Do them before, or after.  Besides, who want's to download a large update over what is typically a slow connection at that overseas hotel?

Second: Through either captive portal DNS, or via Javascript injection delivered by the compromised guest connection, these popups are being delivered primarily through the browser - just like "normal" malware popups.  I speculate that there may also be a class of these threats that try to take advantage of unpatched systems -- just like the ones you see from compromised websites or from clicking the wrong spam email link.

In the former case, the sample I recently observed looked like a browser popup, mocked up to resemble (poorly) an actual update alert from Adobe. An unwary traveler might be fooled by this, it scares me to think how many . . .

In the latter case, the attack could exploit known vulnerabilities in either Java, Flash or the OS to deliver a small software stub that does a much better job of presenting the intended victim a realistic looking (but still fake) update alert.  This is much like the numerous examples of fake anti-virus infections that have plagued the Internet for the last few years.  Your best bet to prevent this is -- as always -- to stay on top of your system updates for the OS, Java, Flash, etc.

Third:  Some reminders of safe guest connection usage to prevent ID Theft, infection etc.

  1. Never, ever, click on a popup window while browsing the Internet.  Close it via Task Manager or by using ALT-F4.
  2. Never access secure websites like your bank while on a guest connection unless you are also using VPN or similar safeguards to prevent snooping.
  3. Don't leave your computer unattended while connected to a guest connection.  Let it go to sleep, or hibernate, or disconnect it for localized work, or shut it down when you are done with your session.
  4. Pay careful attention to the guest connections usage instructions (if the hotel or facility provides such) . . .  in particular make sure you are connecting to their actual hotspot, not a fake one with a similar name in range.
  5. When you first connect to a guest connection, Vista and Windows 7 will ask you if this is a Home, Work or Public connection.  ALWAYS select Public - this tells your OS to use a higher security level on its built in firewall.  Other third party software firewall solutions generally also prompt you on the trust level you want to give a guest connection, always choose the most restrictive profile available.
  6. Assume that any guest connection, whether at a hotel, coffee shop, truck stop, conference center, airport, etc, is suspect.  Also don't assume that the IC3's advisory should only be taken for overseas travel.  Similar attack methods have occurred in the past in the US, Canada and elsewhere. They can take place on both wireless and wired connections.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Add system updates to your travel preparation list

Update: Travelers alert concerning fake update alert popups

It's come to this, a problem that I first thought of several years ago (that blog is dead or I would link it) has finally come to pass.

Updates for certain common plugins are being spoofed on guest connections at hotels, airports and probably other Wi-Fi hotspots. And you should not assume it's just Wi-Fi, it could also be an Ethernet cable connection in the hotel room, or at the guest services room at the conference center.

Travelers to (for now*) undisclosed foreign countries have become victims to malware being presented in a popup window that claims to be a well known and frequently updated plugin. I would guess Adobe Flash, could also be Adobe Reader or Oracle Java.

It's become serious enough that the IC3 and the FBI have posted a travelers advisory about the issue.

Malware Installed on Travelers' Laptops Through Software Updates on Hotel Internet Connections

Recent analysis from the FBI and other government agencies demonstrates that malicious actors are targeting travelers abroad through pop-up windows while establishing an Internet connection in their hotel rooms.

Recently, there have been instances of travelers' laptops being infected with malicious software while using hotel Internet connections. In these instances, the traveler was attempting to setup the hotel room Internet connection and was presented with a pop-up window notifying the user to update a widely-used software product. If the user clicked to accept and install the update, malicious software was installed on the laptop. The pop-up window appeared to be offering a routine update to a legitimate software product for which updates are frequently available.

* I'm going to extrapolate into the future a bit: It's only a matter of time before this a) spreads to the US and b) expands to include Windows Updates and other popular updates.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Remembering that it's become vitally important to stay patched for all MS products, Adobe products and Java - and that you should be as current in your updates as possible, it may be better to delay patches if they come out during your travel.

Better yet, add system maintenance to your list of things to complete just before you depart for your trip! Do it from a trusted Internet connection: home or work.

And a short reminder of the top four items to check at least monthly:

1) Microsoft Updates: released every second Tuesday of each month.

2) Adobe PDF and Flash updates at no set release schedule, but check monthly. (I do this for manual patched systems on the same day I deploy MS patches.)

3) Java (now from Oracle) at

4) Firefox (if you are a fan).

And during the trip? From now on: IGNORE update reminders when connected to a guest Internet service.