Category Archives: Field Reports

Cleanup reports of startupware from the real world.

AntiVirus Software EPIC FAIL by Design

Got an invoice in the mail this morning. A company I never heard of, with this message:

Here is your bill.

Waiting for your answer

Risus Incorporated
Lev Mckenzie
(896) 756-0588

The attachment is named “Risus Incorporated.bill42zo.06.p24me38i.rtf”.

So what’s wrong with that?

  • I have no business relationship with any of those names.
  • The company name doesn’t match the email domain.
  • 896 is a fake area code.
  • That last name is odd–that ‘k’ in ‘Mckenzie’ should be capitalized. Who misspells their own name?
  • The web site matching the email address that appears to have sent the email is the “Arab Real Estate Company”, with what appears to be a legit web site in Arabic.
  • The “invoice” is a RTF file, also known as a “Rich Text File”; that’s what we programmers used to use to create help files, so it is very capable of holding scripts and program code, but it’s a horrible choice for sending an actual invoice.

PhishSo it’s an obvious fake: a phish, an attempt to get me to open something I shouldn’t. OK, with caution, I looked inside. (Don’t do what I do. I’m a professional, and I don’t just double-click to see if anything explodes.) Inside there are multiple pages of this:


valvular wishbone sallymen poop gyn underdepth fearfulness feistiest vapulate gigsmen hemagglutinate bridoon diactinism shiplet subintegumental marliest vagabonding proamateur atamasco supracargo teleplay spherify rhytidome unheart verifiably neobotany horizontalism presbyterianism fatigues reconsign ower incontrollable gangliglions externa allopathically creep witches cicatrices scrappiest hardfistedness harakiri subcortically privily sappily intendence nearshore hypereutectoid chylidrosis metosteal sarcasm's dropsied earthing devour patashte stereoelectric brattie counterprove adventure resprout hyperparasitize humanised unevil pinyin prerighteousness pidgized shellful recompute ultrafiltration masslessness spig expectance voidance multipartisan fin mandrin mezair wastes audiotapes contrariness nonrefractional abnormalise wrihte morphonemics splenetive utilize goniostat chondrocranium

Well, that’s just a paste of words, mostly from a scientific dictionary, in random order, probably chosen because scientific terms are basically international, and would not trigger a “Wrong language” alert in an automated scan.

After a lot of that, I can see function calls to Windows libraries. In other words, yes, it’s a program or a script. Beyond that, I leave it to the malware labs, and yes, I sent a copy to one of the top providers, and they will share it with the other anti-malware companies.


And here’s the issue. The computer that this arrived on has in excess of 12 layers of security filtering, between software, settings, and plugins that block evil activity, and is 100% up-to-date, confirmed with three different products. The message wasn’t flagged by Clam Antivirus on the mail server. And on arrival, I saved the attachment, and manually scanned it with three anti-virus and anti-malware products.

There were NO ALERTS AT ALL. Why? Because these anti-malware products are based on a spell checker. They do a mathematical calculation of the contents of a known-evil sample, and come up with a long number that identifies exactly that file, and they save that and send it out to all the computers running that AV product. Takes three days from submission to prevention. But this sample is full of dictionary words. Well, if the malware authors are generating new random pages of word scrambles in each attached RTF file, not one of their “invoices” will ever be detected. EPIC FAIL. Even if they don’t send you a dictionary, there’s a three-day lag time, and until then, the malware is undetectable.

The Fix

  • Educate your users.
  • Don’t open suspicious attachments.
  • Keep your patches up-to-date. Automate it, so that published security holes used by the bad guys aren’t available on your systems.
  • Use ONLY non-Administrator accounts on your computers.
  • Uninstall software that connects to the internet when it’s no longer needed, to reduce attack surface and reduce needed patches.

So there’s no infection here. I didn’t open the invoice. I don’t owe money to a real estate company in Saudi Arabia. Deleted. And you don’t need software to tell you when an email is just plain impossibly wrong.

Windows 10 Upgraded? Check Your Backup Software!

Windows 10 Download Status

The free upgrades to Windows 10 ended this morning, around 6am Eastern, or midnight at the International Date Line. What to do now? Well, hold on tight for the ‘Anniversary Update’, coming next week. And you can tweak Windows 10 to skip showing ads; look for ‘Windows ppotlight’ in Settings, Personalization, Lock Screen, and choose a picture instead. And turn off “Get fun facts, tips, tricks and more on your lock screen.” At best, it’s clutter on a locked computer’s screen, at worst, well we’ll see how that develops.

Backups Still Working?

More important than the inevitable new-software tweaks, however, are to check your backup software. That means start the program, and see if it works; some older versions of backup software are being detected as dangerous in version 10. Update to the current version as-needed.

Now go and look at the actual backups, and restore a few files. Does it still work as it should?

Notifications icon in Windows 10Operating system updates are a big deal. Windows deleted some programs and apps during the upgrade. Some of them, it warned you, well, after the fact, that it had removed them, by a chirp and a notification in the bottom-right of the screen. You can read those again–click the notifications icon, immediately left of the clock.

Missing Stuff?

Most of the deletions that I’ve heard about or seen have been software tools used by repair techs and consultants like myself. Anyone using those won’t have a problem reinstalling the latest version. But XP Mode is gone! That’s not news, XP Mode wasn’t available in Windows 8 or 8.1, either, but it was a separate downloadable add-on for Windows 7, from Microsoft, and there’s no notice that it was removed.

XP Mode was basically Windows XP in a box. It was handy for running an old program that isn’t compatible with Windows 7. If you lost XP Mode, switch to Oracle VirtualBox instead. It’s free, faster, and runs in Windows 10. You have to provide your own operating system to load inside VirtualBox; there are plenty of online guides on how to do that.

So Who are these Black Swans, Anyway?

Black Swans
Black Swans are like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition: NO ONE expects it. You’re watching birds on a lake. There are ducks. Geese. Maybe a pink heron. Based on where you are, you can guess what birds could show up. Some are rare, most aren’t. But no one expects the Black Swan. So in military tactics analysis and business continuity planning, it’s the attack or the failure that statistically wasn’t even calculated; it just wasn’t even considered.

You can’t plan for a Black Swan. For computer disaster preparation, you plan for hard drive failures, lightning strikes, burglaries. Floods in wet areas, exploding sprinkler heads in cold areas. Tornadoes in Kansas. But there’s no expecting a black swan event; if you knew what it was, it would not be a black swan event. The overall problem is this: You know what you know. You have no clue what you don’t.

Superstorm Sandy? Yes, to some extent. Hurricane planning covered that for all but the areas hit hardest–it was close enough that for all but the worst-hit areas, a hurricane plan covered it.

Snowmageddon I and II ? Well, central Maryland clearly didn’t plan for over 7 feet of snow during serial blizzards. Snow-induced roof collapses aren’t typical around here. No, that’s weren’t typical. We’ve had practice now, might be ready next time.
Snowmageddon I
So how do you plan for a generic group of natural or man-made disasters that you can’t plan for? You have to make a few assumptions:

  • Management and staff of the business will survive, mostly, but transportation and communication may not allow you to evaluate that.
  • The local business environment for the business will be viable after the event, at some point.
  • Suppliers and service providers will be up and running, if remote enough.

With these assumptions, which by the very nature of black swans, may be completely wrong, we could have some starting points:

  • Your staff should know to call in as “can’t make it in” even if it’s obvious that “there’s no way anybody could ever make it in. Period.” and they should know in advance who to call at home to check in, and who is the backup person to call at home. Or better yet, the out-of-state contact person collecting and relaying messages.
  • If the business location still exists, and still has power and communications, planning in advance for teleworking would have been a good idea, if you had planned for the black swan of all mothers of blizzards to park on top of you. In good times, telework is an employment perk. In bad times, it’s business survival.
  • If you had set up telephone forwarding options in advance, that can be turned on remotely, you would be less miserable now. If your plans were flexible enough to work when the cell towers have no power or are overwhelmed with traffic, even better.
  • Computer data backups that can be accessed remotely are ideal. Some cloud systems can do that, others can’t. But the black birds on your roof won’t let you go set it up right now. (It’s crows this time, maybe a vulture…) Plan ahead.

Computer data backups that are in your office, if said office still exists, have all the hypothetical power of Schrödinger’s Cat. They may (or may not) be there, or be wet/frozen/fried/zapped, or liquified. They might wait for you. Might currently be migrating across the ocean on a garbage island floating away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, along with a flock of blackened sea gulls. Cloud backups would be a better choice, if they’re really, really ‘cloud’ and set up in advance.

So let’s pause and explain what a ‘cloud’ is. In scientific terms, a cloud is a geographically-redundant and geographically-distributed set of computer servers for some combination of either storage or computation. “A server in Cleveland” is not “the cloud.” A SET of backup servers in at least two locations, with automatic fail-over and duplication, is minimally a cloud. The internet is not the cloud any more than the moon is the solar system. There are many moons in the solar system, but the parts are not individually the sum. So if you hear ‘cloud’, ask ‘how many continents are the servers on?’ You will likely hear a reply of either zero content, like “it’s all up there somewhere”, or “the data is stored in our own data centers based in these three cities, and they’re in different time zones.” If that scale is appropriate for the scale of your operations, great. If not, get a real cloud service provider.

So can you plan for the bird that doesn’t exist? We might hope for some other bird, maybe the Bluebird of Happiness, instead, but dealing with good things doesn’t require dark thoughts and redundant data storage. Black Swans can be planned for, by being ready for all the little disasters we understand, and guessing they’ll stack up someday. The really big black swan? Well, we won’t ever really know about that one until it arrives.