Chinese Hackers Accused of Using ‘Spearphishing’

That link your boss emailed you: make sure it's actually from your boss and not a cabal of suspected Chinese military hackers.

That's one of the biggest takeaways from the cyber-spying indictment unsealed Monday by the U.S. Department of Justice. In it, five Chinese military officers were accused of committing economic espionage by hacking into the computers of U.S. companies involved in nuclear energy, steel manufacturing and solar energy.

One of their most common tactics, according to the 56-page indictment, was "spearphishing" -- a twist on traditional phishing in which the scam email is made to look like it's from someone you know.

The technique isn't particularly sophisticated, but cybersecurity experts warn that it can be tricky. Unlike traditional phishing, in which scammers send out a mass email hoping for someone to bite, the spearphisher "thrives on familiarity" and "knows your name, your email address, and at least a little about you," according to the website for Norton, the malware prevention and removal service. "The salutation on the email message is likely to be personalized: 'Hi Bob' instead of 'Dear Sir.' "

In one instance highlighted in the indictment, a Chinese officer allegedly emailed roughly 20 U.S. Steel employees purporting to be their company's chief executive. The message included a link that installed malware that gave the alleged Chinese conspirators suspects backdoor access to the company's computers, just weeks before the release of a report on an important trade dispute.

Several of the employees took the bait and clicked the link.

In another instance, the same Chinese officer allegedly sent employees at the company a message with the subject line "US Steel Industry Outlook" -- also including a link that surreptitiously installed malware.

"Spearphishing messages were typically designed to resemble e-mails from trustworthy senders, like colleagues, and encouraged the recipients to open attached files or click on...

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