Scammers Poured Themselves a Glass and Got to Work on Wine-Themed Phishing Emails in 2020

Lots of people opened up bottles of wine on Zoom visits in isolation. And, 2020 saw rising wine sales and digital scams to match. Researchers at Recorded Future and Area 1 Security witnessed an increase in wine-themed domain registrations and phishing emails beginning in the spring of 2020. Take a look at numerous attack campaigns preying on wine lovers.

Fraudulent Domains and Phishing Emails 

Monthly sign-ups for wine-themed domains grew from an average of 4,000 to 5,500 in March 2020. The number rose to 7,200 a month later before exploding to 12,400 in May. After that, wine-themed domain registrations averaged anywhere from 7,000 to 9,500. That’s two or three times the amount of the year prior.

Malicious domain registrations for wine followed a similar pattern to the honest ones. These domains topped out at 668 in May. That number hovered between 230 and 430 for the rest of the year. Fraudsters used those websites to launch a variety of digital attacks, including phishing emails.

“The majority of activity we saw over the last year revolved around spam campaigns,” says Allan Liska, security architect at Recorded Future. “They appear primarily designed to get victims to click on websites for ad revenue purposes or to buy questionable wine-related products.”

Sometimes, those products pushed sales for real brands that actually contained fake wine. One such scam made headlines when a law enforcement operation arrested two people, investigated 11 others and seized 4,000 counterfeit bottles of Bolgheri Sassicaia by Tenuta San Guido. A few months later UK experts found Chinese crime gangs pushing phony bottles of an Australian wine brand, reported Mirror.

Other times, scammers convinced buyers to place a 50% deposit for items that never arrived. Or, they launched business email compromise phishing email scams. These attempted to trick people into wiring funds to an account under the attackers’ control.

“These could be as simple as ‘you need to pay this invoice for the wine your boss ordered’ to more complex attacks that purport to come from the CEO or other senior management,” explained Liska.

Wine Scammers Get Caught, Too

Attackers launching wine-themed campaigns don’t always get away with it. In October 2020, for instance, CNN reported that a judge had sentenced a wine distributor to two years in prison for misusing funds as part of a wire fraud scheme. U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement deported wine seller Rudy Kurniawan to his native Indonesia in April after he made millions by repackaging cheaper wines as more expensive labels. His long-running wine sale scams weren’t strictly digital attacks per se and certainly aren’t phishing emails. However, they show how this field is one to watch for fraud on either side of the screen.

Defending Against Phishing Emails and Other Scams

The campaigns discussed above highlight the need for employers to defend themselves against scams that prey on the human element. These might be fake websites or phishing emails. One of the ways they can do that is by using awareness training to educate their users about some of the most common types of phishing attacks today.

Organizations can balance those human controls with technical measures, too. First, consider putting banners in place that warn people of external senders which might be the source of phishing emails. Next, keep “disallow lists” of sketchy domains.

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