Valentine's Day Fuels Spike in Dating Spam, IBM Reports

Email inboxes around the world have been flooded with dating spam from the Necurs botnet, with over 230 million messages sent so far.

Email malware 2

18 years after the I Love You virus was emailed to millions of people around the globe, cyber-attackers are still using email to trick the lovelorn. 

As Valentine's Day approaches, there has been an uptick in the volume of botnet spam sending fake dating messages, according to research released Feb. 12, by IBM. IBM's X-Force security research unit reported that the dating spam is being delivered by the Necurs botnet and began growing on Jan. 16.

"The spam volumes X-Force research recorded showed over 230 million emails that accumulated in a couple of bouts over two weeks," Limor Kessem, Executive Security Advisor at IBM Security, told eWEEK. "Those were all from the same campaign that filled inboxes with dating scam emails."

From Russia With Love

The dating spam subject lines varied and were relatively minimal. Kessem said that among the email subject lines were simply "Hi" or "Hey", with the body of the email claiming to be from Russian women living in the U.S. and looking for companionship. 

Though Valentine's Day seems like an obvious target for dating spam, the increase in dating spam volume isn't always linked to that holiday. Kessem said that when it comes to dating spam, IBM sees waves of romance scams hit inboxes in more than one opportune time during each year.

"In 2017, for example, we also saw some dating campaigns emerge in April, right around tax time deadlines," Kessem said. "For criminals, any time when recipients are more likely to watch their email for news is a window of opportunity to reach them."

Payload

While spam itself can be nuisance, it's not entirely clear how successful the current Necurs dating spam campaign is. Kessem said that it's hard not to wonder, with over 230 million emails, what percentage of replies the criminals might get. 

"Unfortunately, there is no way to know what the click-through volume might be because it happens on each individual's own device, and via their email account, which is private and not visible through our research," Kessem said. 

The current Necurs dating spam campaign hasn't immediately directed users to a specific malicious site that could be tracked, Kessem said. There was no payload attached to the initial emails either, she noted. However, the dating spammers tend to use a multiple step process to exploit respondents.

"What romance scams generally can be used for are subsequent schemes after the recipient replies," Kessem said.

For example, Kessem said that a dating scammer wil ask for information or photos that could be used to extort the victim, or ask for some money to come meet them in their state, claiming they need travel money. If one scam does not work, they will try another and might eventually send a rigged file to infect the recipient with malware as part of an affiliate scheme.

Dating spam emails are also not necessarily connected to any sort of fake dating profiles on a dating website. In the Necurs spam that IBM X-Force analyzed, Kessem said that researchers noted that many times the sender knew of a profile on specific sites or simply said they saw the recipient’s profile on Facebook. 

"We can’t be sure, but it’s possible that a spammer could have gotten hold of an email database from a dating site to increase the credibility of the spam ploy," she added.

What Should End-User Do?

There are a few simple steps that end-users can take to avoid being a victim of fraudulent dating emails. Kessem suggests that when it comes to emails of this sort, which are purely a social engineering effort, users would be wise to avoid replying at all.

"If they indeed have an active profile on a dating sight, they are better off logging into their account and responding to members that look legitimate instead of following up on an unsolicited email," Kessem said. "Also, if one does reply and receive further correspondence from such emails, then detecting the malicious intent should be easy – the scammer won’t take long to ask for something! When they do, the best advice is to block their email or report it and move on."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.