Twitter Phishers Catch Some Big Game

It’s easy to fall victim to some of the more sophisticated Twitter and other social network scams out there, as exemplified by the ability of the latest Twitter phishing attack to catch some big names in its net. British Environment Minister Ed Miliband and BBC correspondent Nick Higham along with others in the media and politics displayed the same sex-related Tweets that linked to phishing sites after their accounts were hijacked. Although the scam has its own agenda, which may involve identity theft or skewing search engine results, citizens’ trust in already suspiciously-viewed institutions might take a serious downturn if this trend continues.

This particular scam, which involved hiding infected sites in the shortened URLs common to Twitter, was effective for several reasons that relied on the nature of the increasingly popular social network. Twitter allows direct messages to be sent to followers, and many of the phishing Tweets were aimed at individuals in this way. The fact that your political representative or a respected journalist directly addresses you in their Tweet is reason enough for many to trust the link that they included, even if the topic (which, in this case, was more often than not sexual in nature) might seem a little suspect.

Those users who were caught in this scheme stand to lose some of the trust they have in either the person sending the Tweet, or digital technology itself. Because politicians and the media are already viewed with less-than-total trust as it is, their use of digital technology could be detrimental to their support with the public if the scams continue.

This scam was, in all honest, pretty obviously a scam. However, what if politicians started broadcasting Tweets like “A new bill that will put more money in your pocket. [Link] to show your support” or a journalist Tweets “Startling new developments that could see troops in your backyard [Link]”? The ability to get people to click on the infected site depends on how much they trust the person Tweeting it. Politicians and journalists are leaders of the community, and thus, although they do carry their fair share of suspicions, they are more likely to be trusted by a larger population than an average Twitter user. And if the phishing scams start to become more sophisticated, tailoring the Tweet (or FB status update, or email) to both the sender and recipient, it is likely that they will be clicked on by more people.

Ultimately, this could cause issues for politicians and journalists, among other figures. Someone clicking on a phishing link sent by their local representative might recognize it as a scam that the politician was unaware of, or it might leave a negative impression and forever associate that politician with scams and foul play – something that will tarnish any reputation, and possibly hurt them in an upcoming election if the mistrust is widespread.

The use of digital communication tools like Twitter allows prominent figures to connect with interested individuals, but this connection is not inherently positive. If scams begin to proliferate and more politicians are affected, they might just shy away from Twitter and other social networks to protect their image from damaging (albeit counterfeit) broadcasts.

Phishing icon via Softpedia.