Tag Archives: Glaswegian

How Language and Culture Play into Phishing Scams

Frame of an animation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Frame of an animation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

It happens to all of us. You get an email from a friend with a suspicious looking link. You know you shouldn’t open it but the subject is just too enticing. It’s something like…

“Wow you won’t believe what this guy is saying about you online.” And beneath the enticing line, is a link.

Chinese linguist David Moser couldn’t help himself. He clicked the link and kablooey. “I had given away the game into cyberspace.” He had been hacked.

Moser was victim of a phishing scam. Phishing is when a hacker reels you in with a clever line and then hooks you with a link to click and download malware onto your computer. Phishing is part of how Chinese hackers get inside government computers, and if you remember back a few months ago, how they hacked into the New York Times.

According to the cybersecurity company, Mandiant, hired to investigate how the New York Times was hacked, one important tool hackers are now employing is “good English.” Moser says it’s a sign of the times.

“We know there are at least 300 million people in China learning English right now. That’s the population of the US. So there’s got to be lots of people good at learning slangy English,” says Moser.

It’s true, these scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated says Andrew Howard. Howard studies the effectiveness of phishing at the Georgia Tech Research Institute by writing and sending what he calls “ethical phishing emails” and measuring how many people click on the dubious link.

“In my experience even a really poorly crafted email, we see click rates in the 20-25 percent rate.”

Yes, says Howard, those ridiculously worded emails from your long, lost friend in Nigeria who’s got some money to give you if you’ll only release your back account number, even those emails pay off. So imagine, says Howard, if you add better language skills to the mix?

“I’ve been using online translation services just to read the internet. Those services are getting better and that’s part of the reason you see better written emails,” says Howard.

It goes beyond language according to Peter Cassidy who heads the Anti-Phishing Working Group, which monitors phishing scams around the world. The scammers are tapping into deep cultural mores.

“What will affect the culture will inform the stories [scammers] are trying to tell,” says Cassidy.

For example, in Japan, scammers prey on Japanese feelings about shame and what gets people to click is blackmail.

“Japan has it’s own blackmail-ware,” says Cassidy. These are emails says Cassidy that for example threaten a Japanese internet user that unless he forks over money, his wife will find out what he’s been looking at online.

As for what gets Americans to click, it’s charity.

“Seventy-two hours before Katrina made landfall, the first Katrina charity phishing websites were established. I think generosity is the calling card of Americans.”

So what about the country we are fixated on at the moment, China? While there’s evidence that Chinese are hacking US corporations and government agencies, the run-of-the-mill Chinese cyber scammer is not wasting his or her time using Google translate on American consumers but scamming in their native tongue. It’s a lucrative venture as more and more Chinese are buying and selling online.

China’s a place that’s gotten wealthy very quickly. A generation ago many Chinese couldn’t imagine owning a computer nevermind connecting to the world on the internet.

“Suddenly [they] have an enormously powerful computer and the internet and everything out there and oh boy it’s fun,” says Cassidy.

Fun until their computer gets infected which, according to Cassidy, more than half of Chinese computers are infected already. That he says is part of the price of prosperity.

Patrick adds:

Also in this podcast, Glasgow’s finest comedienne Janey Godley on why so many top soccer coaches come from her home town (it may have something to do with the accent, the slang and the attitude). If you missed it,



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Birds, urls and Glaswegians

For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

5. Some birds develop  distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina  chirp the avian version of  “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment.  The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.

There is a BBC story from a few years ago suggesting  that cows pick up on regional human accents. But, alas, the story may have been largely bogus.

glasgow ad

4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow.  Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.

3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools.  Surpringly,  France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of  earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms  haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar.  Some European language-learning groups however,  are skeptical that the reforms will help much.

2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles,  schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there.  However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.

1.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global.  This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of  a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans.  Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)

Listen in iTunes or here.

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