New Digital Spam: How Bad Guys Try to Trick You; How to Avoid the Traps

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QR Codes

A QR code
Example of a QR code
Another sneaky new tactic to beware of involves QR codes embedded in email messages. Quick Response codes are two-dimensional pixelated barcodes that smartphone users can scan using their phone's camera coupled with a reader app.

When you scan a QR code, you never know where it will take you. You could end up on a site offering any number of things: useful information and reviews for a product that you're thinking of buying; a coupon or discount; lame company information you don't care about; or (as happened in a recent spam campaign) a landing page that sells pharmaceuticals or one that infects phones with malware.

Security researchers say that the lack of clarity about the purpose of the URL could lead to QR codes' becoming the next trouble spot in mobile malware propagation.

Advice: To get around the hiding of the URL, be sure to use a reader app that shows you the address of the link before you go there. I recommend Google Goggles, which works great in iOS and Android. Opening the app activates your camera. If you hold your phone in front of a QR code, Goggles automatically will read it, spend a second or two analyzing it, and then show you the link that the code points to.

From there, you can either go forward to the site, or do nothing. Goggles is fun to play around with, too: You can take pictures of things in the world; and if Google recognizes them, it will send you more information. If the link goes to a website that you don't know or may not trust, however, don't go there. In general, scanning a QR code at Arby's or from a product information tag at Best Buy won't do any damage. But no matter how inquisitive you are, never scan one that's located somewhere random, such as on a wall near a bar, and lacks any type of explanation.

Junk Apps

You need to be careful about the apps you download to your phone. Junk apps include programs that falsely claim to be something they're not, copy the appearance of popular apps while being pretty much worthless, or promise to have cheats for popular games. Though lots of free apps look interesting, some of them have little functionality unless you ante up for the in-app upgrade. In sum, the entire free app acts as an ad for the paid version.

And though Apple screens apps before permitting them inside its walled garden, bad ones do sometimes get through. An app claiming to be the 4.0 version of the Camera+ app gained access to Apple's App Store; last month, it was busted as a fake. The real Camera+, created by developer Tap Tap Tap, sells for the same price, but it's only at version 2.4.

Advice: Try to be discerning about the applications you install on your computing devices, even if they come from the Apple App Store. Malicious code has snuck in on occasion, too. Since disgruntled mobile users are usually quick to give negative feedback on apps, I'd recommend that you never download anything that has a one- or two-star rating.

Push Notification Ads

Thousands of Android apps shove marketing icons onto your phone's start screen or push advertising into your notification bar, often without warning. By bundling their adware into popular Android programs, marketing companies may push ads to millions of new smartphones each week.

Most Android users hate the swarm of marketing on their touchscreens, though they may not have a clue why the ads are showing up on their phones. Unfortunately, getting rid of the adware after your phone is invaded can be difficult, since you probably won't know which app snuck it onto your handset.

Advice: Sometimes you can opt out of receiving the ads, but the mechanism for doing so may not be there or may be hard to find. If you can figure out which marketing firm is pushing you ads, try visiting its website. Sometimes the company gives consumers a way to opt out of receiving ads from them.

Audible Spam

I have a friend who says that there's a special place in hell reserved for websites that launch music when you land on them.

While I wouldn't go that far, commercial websites that automatically start playing music, noisy ads, or some type of sound when you visit them are annoying. Either you're at work and it's inappropriate, or you're listening to music and don't need a sound war to break out. Since I like to work in complete silence, I find these loud interruptions especially jarring.

Advice: To get around noise pollution while browsing, keep your volume muted. And while you're at it, why not leave feedback at the site indicating how much its audible spam bothers you?

Not Going Away Anytime Soon

The problem of spam is not likely to disappear. But by being vigilant about where you stray online and about what information you give to others, you can at least avoid inadvertantly contributing to the ugliness yourself.

What spam bugs you the most? Let us know in the comments below.

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