Cyber crooks are capitalizing on influenza fears with torrents of e-mail promising "swine flu" news but delivering malware or dubious offers for potency drugs or penis enlargement.
Scammers have launched Web sites hawking bogus products "that claim to prevent, treat, or cure" the H1N1 flu virus, according to an alert posted late Thursday at the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA said it is "informing offending Web sites that they must take prompt action to correct and/or remove promotions of these fraudulent products or face immediate enforcement action."
"Zombie" computers infected with a dreaded Conficker virus that became an online scourge this year are among machines being used to spew flu spam crafted to trick email recipients, according to computer security firm Trend Micro.
"The thing making it worse is the misinformation out there about swine flu," said Jamz Yaneza, threats research manager at Trend Micro.
"These guys have picked up on all the fears people have. With all the hysteria of swine flu, some people click on these emails."
Subject boxes of spam e-mail feature lines such as "Swine Flu Outbreak!" and "Madonna Catches Swine Flu!" in order to grab people's interest, a tactic referred to by hackers as "social engineering."
The words "swine" and "flu" essentially had not been seen together in spam before the third week of April, David Marcus of McAfee said in a blog posting at the computer security firm's Web site.
The word combination surged in spam on April 27, with half the e-mail apparently coming from sources in Germany, Brazil, and the United States, according to Marcus.
McAfee said it also has seen keywords "swine" and "flu" used to direct Internet users to a Russia-based Web site booby trapped with a computer virus.
"Malware writers, spammers and scammers are low lives," Marcus wrote.
"They will use any high media event or high impact news story to push their wares including the sickness and misery of others. Stay vigilant and stay safe."
Crime groups involved with Conficker, Storm, and other computer viruses that take control of people's machines and weave them into "botnet" armies are most likely behind the flu spam, said David Perry, Trend Micro's global education director.
"You may have noticed that pirates have been replaced by swine flu as the disaster of the moment on television stations," Perry said. "It was all but inevitable that the bad guys would pick up on this."
Spam e-mail subject lines include one claiming to have a message from Mexican President Felipe Calderon outlining new measures that have been taken against the disease.
The influenza hit Mexico first and hardest.
"Swine virus has become a computer virus that takes advantage of fear, confusion and the interest for information available on the Web regarding the epidemic to spread mischievous codes, junk e-mails and infect computer equipment," said the firm's director for Latin America, Juan Pablo Castro.
Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases warned Thursday that a suspicious Japanese-language e-mail message with an attached file called "information on swine flu" had been circulating in cyberspace.
Those who order online pills from the spam pitches run risks of having credit card information stolen; paying for drugs that are never delivered, or receiving pills they probably shouldn't swallow, Yanezasaid .
"I would never buy anything from online pharmacies," Yaneza said. "The fake pill market is a very huge market."