a series of tubes

Innovations in phishing

Like most people who’ve had email for more than a week, I’m used to getting phony notices from eBay, Bank of America, and various other institutions telling me that there’s a problem with my account, and inviting me to click on the embedded link and “verify” my personal info. By now I think I’ve seen all the common variations of this scam, but every once in a while there’s a new one:

Dear PayPal Member,

This email confirms that you have sent an eBay payment of $47.85 USD to
xxx@yahoo.com for an eBay item.

Payment Details

Amount: $47.85 USD
Transaction ID: xxx
Subject: Digimax 130

If you haven’t authorized this charge, click the link below to dispute transaction
and get full refund.

Dispute transaction (Encrypted link)

*SSL connection:
PayPal automatically encrypts your confidential information
in transit from your computer to ours using the Secure
Sockets Layer protocol (SSL) with an encryption key length
of 128-bits (the highest level commercially available)

The message goes on to state that the guy you supposedly sent money to has an unconfirmed address (with “UNCONFIRMED” in all-caps), and congratulates you on your choice of payment method:

By using your bank account to send money, you just:

– Paid easily and securely
– Sent money faster than writing and mailing paper checks
– Paid instantly — your purchase won’t show up on bills at the end of
the month.

Thanks for using your bank account!

…which I thought was an especially clever touch. Most phishing emails suggest that your eBay/PayPal/whatever account will be “locked” or “disabled” until you provide the requested information. That’s annoying, but not necessarily urgent. The thought that someone might be draining your bank account RIGHT NOW, on the other hand…

Very deft use of psychology. Now if only this ingenuity could be harnessed for something constructive, like rescuing Battlestar Galactica from last season’s plot twists.

Meet the War Nerd

Via extempore I have discovered The War Nerd, a column published in the Moscow-based alternative newspaper The Exile. The War Nerd is written by Gary Brecher, a self-described fat white misanthrope from Fresno, CA, whose sole passion is armed conflict.

There’s lots of stuff about Iraq, of course (like this July 2002 column in which Brecher gives a depressingly accurate prediction of Gulf War II’s outcome), but also plenty of coverage of all the other fighting going on the world, much of which goes unmentioned in the Western media because (a) it’s even more depressing than Iraq, and (b) nobody really cares about the people involved.

Depending on your sensibilities, Brecher’s writing style is either horribly offensive or hopelessly addictive (you can probably guess which camp I fall into). For example, here he is giving historical context on the recent civil wars in Liberia:

Liberian history is supposedly “tragic,” which is newspaper code for “funny as Hell.” I can’t help it, it is. It’s not like I don’t sympathize. I do. I mean, which slum did your grandparents come from? Probably some starved village where the coal mine’s been closed since it ate a whole shift of locals. How’d you like it if everybody in your neighborhood took up a collection to send you back there, even if you didn’t speak a word of the language? “We feel you don’t fit in in Santa Barbara and you’ll never be truly happy until you’re back in Lower Slobovia:”

That’s how Liberia started. It was white people’s idea from the start. They were worried about free blacks, who made up about a tenth of the 2 million black people in the US. The two extremes of the slavery issue, abolitionists and crazy slaveowners, agreed something had to be done about all those free blacks.

The abolitionists loved black people so much they wanted them to go far, far away. So did the slaveowners, who announced with no evidence at all that free blacks were “promoters of mischief.” (I don’t know what “mischief” means—maybe they TP’d those Gone With the Wind plantation houses.)

A group of rich white do-gooders including Francis Scott Key, who wrote “the Star Spangled Banner,” got together to raise the money to send free blacks back to Africa. For them Key had a special version of the anthem: “Oh say can you see/the home of the brave? If so, you’re standing too close/Go about 4000 miles southeast, to West Africaaaa.”

Congress came through with a big grant and in 1819, a ship with 88 freed blacks and three white chaperons landed in that other success-story for re-planting blacks, Sierra Leone. After gassing up at Freetown, they headed down the coast to the promised land, Liberia.

Within three weeks of arriving at their new home, all three whites and 22 blacks died of fever. That’s barely time to start naming things “free-” this and “free-that.

Instead they named the place “Perseverance.” A little truth in advertising. The rich whites sitting home safe in the US were determined to persevere in Liberia, even if it meant shipping every black they could catch straight into the most disease-ridden, lethal climate in the world…

And here’s part of his reaction to the London bus bombings:

So let’s talk urban-war hardware for a second. That ought to thrill you metalheads. Only in this case we’re talking plastic, as in plastic explosives. The London bombs were made with military plastic explosive. My guess is that it’ll turn out to be Czech-made Semtex.

Ah, Semtex, a bus-bomber’s best friend. The Czechs made thousands of tons of it back in the day. They were mighty proud, too — the name “Semtex” comes from a suburb of Prague. It was like their beer: they wanted you to think of them when you, er, consumed it.

“This death has been brought to you by the Czech People’s Republic!” The Czechs are still proud: there’s actually an “energy drink” called Semtex. A big seller in Prague, I hear. I really want to know what their advertising slogan is: “For a BURST of flavor!” It puts a new meaning on the Red Bull slogan: “Semtex Gives You Wings.” Yeah, and 72 virgins, if you’re lucky.

There’s lots more in this vein. Be aware that Brecher’s fact-checking, like his use of punctuation, is a bit slapdash—e.g., Semtex is actually named after a suburb of Pardubice, not Prague (but the energy drink is real)—so you may want to do some additional research before sharing his anecdotes around the water cooler.