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United 'bankruptcy' points to new stock scam techniques

Why use spam to pump and dump when a botnet will do?

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Market watchers are trying to unravel how a six-year old story suddenly rose to prominence, hammering the share price of United Airlines earlier this week.

A 2002 story of a bankruptcy filling by UAL was pushed into the most viewed business story category on the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Web site on Sunday morning. The newspaper's owner, Tribune, said the story (which omitted an obvious date stamp) was not republished. In fact it originally came from the Chicago Tribune, a sister publication to the Sun Sentinel

Google automated software noticed the link and the story appeared in Google News. A Florida investment firm picked up on this and wrote a one line summary for Bloomberg that stated a paper had reported that United Airlines has filed for bankruptcy protection, sparking a run on United's shares.

It's unclear how much traffic the antiquated story received on the Sun Sentinel website before its sudden resurrection, zombie-like, to menace UAL shares. Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman declined to quote traffic figures but told AP that "as you'd expect, the business page of the Sun Sentinel Web site doesn't get a lot of traffic in the middle of the night."

Weitman added that hits on the story had spiked on Sunday and Monday morning. Coincidentally United filed for bankruptcy protection on a Monday in December 2002.

That factor goes some way to explaining why neither Income Securities Advisors, which posted the summary, nor Bloomberg, picked up on the mistake. The share prices now and six years ago were very different but in the rush to push out breaking information it's understandable how this factor, obvious in hindsight, was overlooked at the time.

The erroneous reports were corrected minutes after they appeared but not before United Airlines' stock price sank more than 75 per cent, slipping down to the $3 level before trading was suspended.

All this might have made someone who knew that the share prices were about to nose-dive a lot of money by selling short. The chain of events here is quite complex, and hinges on both the intricacies of how Google's automated software works and human error ,alongside other factors that might be hard to reproduce.

Nonetheless security watchers have flagged the scenario up as a possible path in the evolution of pump and dump stock scams. Instead of using spam email to dupe potential marks into sinking money into worthless shares on the basis of fictitious good news, the approach would rely on resurrecting older items of bad news about companies, stripped of their context.

Potential fraudsters might target an obscure story with hits via a globally distributed botnet of compromised machines and let the story drift up page rankings, hopefully leading it to be picked up more widely and having an effect on the markets.

Danny McPherson, a security researcher at security tools firm Arbor Networks, said that manipulating content presented by media outlets to cause knock-on financial effects would be far from difficult.

"Given the near immediate reaction to 'leaks' in today’s Internet age, much less misinformation, and certainly [not] 'old information', one might surmise that an attacker could easily compromise a few targeted assets - not at a financial, or government, or exchange, but at a media outlet, and cause significant cascading financial impact. You could certainly buy stock and sell it short with such a ploy, or simply buy low and sell high... and with trading volumes we’ve seen here, a couple million dollars might easily fly under the radar," he writes.

"For anyone even remotely security minded, reading stories like this brings so many attack vectors to mind," he adds. ®

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