It’s that time again.

Whenever a major media event happens (like Hurricane Sandy), we are inundated with news. Sometimes that news is useful, but often it merely exists to create FUD… Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. While I have not personally seen any malware campaigns capitalizing on the event yet, it is inevitable. The pattern is generally as follows:

  1. Event hits the news as media outlets try to one-up each other to get the word out.
  2. People spread the warnings, making them just a little bit worse each time they are copied.
  3. Other people create hoaxes to ride the wave of popularity.
  4. Still other people create custom hoaxes to exploit the disaster financially.

A few minutes ago, at least in my little corner of the internet, we hit stage 3 when this image was posted:

( From here. )

Now, as someone who plays with photography, I was a bit suspicious, but as a security person, I can actually prove some things here.

The first tool I want to discuss is FotoForensics. Check out their analysis.

See how the statue of liberty and land on which she stands is much brighter than the background? That indicates that that image has been pasted on top of the other, so we know it’s fake.

Sometimes, though, this trick doesn’t work. If someone is making a good hoax, they can change the error levels to prevent easy detection. That’s where our next tool comes in. TinEye is awesome.

Look what happens when I do a reverse image search on the suspicious fileĀ here. (TinEye results expire after 72 hours, so if you’re slow to read this, just past the URL of the photo into their search box.)

TinEye, by default, is going to try to find the best match. But that’s not what we want. We want the original. Luckily, when people make hoaxes, they usually shrink the image to make it harder to find the signatures of a hoax. So we just click to sort by size and there we have what it likely the original:

ETA: Original can be found in this set by Mike Hollingshead.

Then it lists a bunch of sites that have stolen this image to use without credit. (That’s a different post.) You can then click on the “Compare” link for the likely original and see what they did. By flipping between the versions, you can see that they added the Statue of Liberty, the water and the boat. They also shrunk the image and made it darker… because darker is scarier, apparently.

The important thing to realize here is that the attacker is trying to manipulate you. By spreading fear, they are making you more susceptible to future attacks. By taking advantage of your uncertainty and doubt, they put you in a position where you will do unwise things to gain an element of certainty in your life. Does this matter that much in an image hoax? Probably not. But it does matter when you start getting fraudulent emails convincing you to “click here” to help victims of the hurricane.

Uncertainty and doubt can work against you, but it can also work for you. When the attacks come … likely in a few hours, approach them with suspicion. If you’re in the path of the storm, trust the names you recognize, like Google and The National Weather Service. If you’re not in the path of the storm and want to send aid, go with The Red Cross. If anyone else you don’t know asks for your money or your clicks, ask yourself what they have to gain.