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Scam Alert

Cyber-Threat Trends of 2013

Experts predict a surge in computer and cellphone scams

With 2013 upon us, scammers are busy thinking up new ways to bilk us in the coming 12 months. They'll use increasingly sophisticated methods, experts predict, and update some old ones to try to take control of our computers and cellphones to get our identities and money.

One thing that won't change is that you can stay safe by showing basic vigilance: Keep your security software updated and run it regularly. Click only on links from trusted sources; the same goes for buying cellphone apps. Be smart about where and how you navigate in cyberspace.

Five areas where scammers are likely to expend extra energy:

Scammers friend emails open link mouse two men

Emails with links from scammers can easily be disguised to look like they're from a friend. — Getty Images

Ransomware. It begins when you open a malicious attachment, click on a link in a scammer's email or instant message, or visit scammer websites that promise such things as enticing videos or free prizes. Ransomware locks your computer, usually displaying a screen message that appears to be from a law enforcement agency. Pay us, you're told, and you'll get back control of your computer.

Once considered a niche scam, ransomware attacks exploded in 2012, hitting some 70,000 computers per month. About 3 percent of victims pay the ransom fee — thanks, in part, to cyber-criminals increasingly using online payment methods to collect, says cyber-security firm Symantec, which recently published a detailed report on this ruse. "In 2013, attackers will use more professional ransom screens, up the emotional stakes to motivate their victims, and use methods that make it harder to recover once compromised," predicts Symantec's Kevin Haley.

Cloud-based botnets. For years, spammers have been distributing about 150 billion junk email messages per day with the covert help of the computers of everyday users — maybe even yours. To entice folks to watch videos on social networking websites, open email greeting cards and the like, spammers infect random computers with botnet malware that makes the machines secretly send out spam.

In 2013, predict Georgia Tech researchers, scammers will also turn their botnet schemes to what's known as "the cloud," the global network of Internet-connected computers that store huge amounts of data, shuttle it around and offer data services. If you share your family photos online, for instance, you're using the cloud. As more and more companies put customer data and computing power on the cloud, there's an ever-growing collection of prized targets. "One possible example is for attackers to use stolen credit card information to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems," say Georgia Tech researchers.

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