Do not trust emails containing PDFs "secured" with your email password

Also Known As: Adobe Reader File phishing email
Damage level: Medium

What is "Adobe Reader File email scam"?

"Adobe Reader File email scam" refers to spam campaigns that proliferate PDF documents containing links to phishing websites.

After inspecting a fake "Focke & Co" letter with the subject "Bill of landing", we determined that it is an instance of the "Adobe Reader File email scam". This letter had a PDF attachment that redirected to a phishing site targeting email account log-in credentials.

Example of Adobe Reader File email spam campaign

"Adobe Reader File email scam" overview

Emails with Adobe Reader file attachments, which are designed for phishing, can contain a wide variety of deceptive information. They can be disguised as messages from legitimate companies, organizations, institutions, authorities, and other entities. The text contents can differ drastically, ranging from purchase/payment-related messages to lottery prize themed notifications.

For example, the fake "Focke & Co" email with the subject "Bill of landing" (image above) contains such a PDF file. This letter claims that the recipient has been sent a bill multiple times, but there has been no response. Hence, it is being sent again - using a "secured Adobe Reader file".

After this attachment (titled "Adobe.pdf") is downloaded and opened, the text therein states that the actual PDF is stored on a secure server. Supposedly, it is a security measure, and users will be able to access the document by clicking one of the links below. The text states that to view the file, users will need to provide their email and password on the opened website.

Once a link presented in this PDF document is clicked, it redirects to a phishing site requesting the aforementioned information. However, by attempting to sign in through such websites, users will not access any private documents and instead - disclose their email credentials to scammers.

Emails are of particular interest to cyber criminals since through them - access might be gained to associated content (e.g., accounts registered with the email). To elaborate on how this can be abused - finance-related accounts (e.g., online banking, e-commerce, digital wallets, etc.) can be used to make unauthorized transactions and online purchases.

Communication platforms (e.g., emails, social networking/media, messengers, etc.) can be used to ask the contacts for loans or proliferate malware - under the guise of the account's genuine owner.

It is worth mentioning that PDF attachments in spam emails are not used exclusively for phishing, this document format can also be utilized to spread malware.

To summarize, by trusting the "Adobe Reader File email scam" - victims can experience severe privacy issues, financial losses, and even identity theft. If you have already entered log-in credentials into a phishing site, we strongly advise immediately changing the passwords of all potentially exposed accounts and informing their official support.

Threat Summary:
Name Adobe Reader File phishing email
Threat Type Phishing, Scam, Social Engineering, Fraud
Fake Claim Bill sent via "secured" Adobe Reader File (fake claims may vary)
Disguise Letter from Focke & Co. (disguise may vary)
Attachment(s) Adobe.pdf (filename may vary)
Symptoms Unauthorized online purchases, changed online account passwords, identity theft, illegal access of the computer.
Distribution methods Deceptive emails, rogue online pop-up ads, search engine poisoning techniques, misspelled domains.
Damage Loss of sensitive private information, monetary loss, identity theft.
Malware Removal (Windows)

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Phishing spam campaign examples

We have analyzed thousands of spam letters; "Webmail Center email scam", "A Law Case Filed Against Your Company", and "TrustWallet email scam" are merely a few examples of ones used for phishing.

In addition to various scams, emails of this kind are also used to proliferate trojans, ransomware, cryptocurrency miners, and other malware. Therefore, we highly recommend being vigilant with incoming mail.

How do spam campaigns infect computers?

Spam emails can contain malicious files as attachments or download links. These files can be in various formats, e.g., PDF and Microsoft Office documents, archives (ZIP, RAR, etc.), executables (.exe, .run, etc.), JavaScript, and so forth.

When a virulent file is executed, run, or otherwise opened - malware download/installation processes are jumpstarted. For example, Microsoft Office documents infect systems by executing malicious macro commands.

How to avoid installation of malware?

We advise against opening the attachments and links found in dubious/irrelevant emails and messages - as that may lead to a system infection. It is important to use Microsoft Office versions released after 2010 since they have the "Protected View" mode that prevents automatic execution of macros.

However, malware is distributed using a broad range of techniques. Hence, we also recommend downloading only from official/verified sources and activating/updating programs with legitimate tools (illegal activation tools ["cracks"] and fake updaters can contain malware).

We must emphasize the importance of having a dependable anti-virus installed and kept up-to-date. This software has to be used to perform regular system scans and to remove detected threats and issues. If you've already opened malicious attachments, we recommend running a scan with Combo Cleaner Antivirus for Windows to automatically eliminate infiltrated malware.

Text presented in this fake "Focke & Co" spam email letter:

Subject: Bill of landing

Good day,
I have sent you the bill many times and am waiting for your reply. The document is in a secured Adobe Reader file. Please check it and get back to me.

Kind regards
Susanne Gunter
Focke & Co. (GmbH & Co. KG)
Siemensstr. 10
27283 Verden, Germany
Tel.: +49 4231 991-0

Screenshot of the Adobe Reader file attachment distributed via "Focke & Co" spam email ("Adobe.pdf" filename):

Attachment distributed through Focke & Co spam campaign (Adobe.pdf filename)

Text presented in this PDF document:

You have a private pdf file/document waiting for you online via our secured
web server. As part of our security measure you are to login with your correct Email and Password combination to view this file.

Click the link below to view the pdf secure file from our web server.

Click Here to View Pdf Attached File
PDF Download / Save Dropbox

If you have further questions please contact the sender of this message.


Screenshot of the phishing website promoted by this PDF document:

Adobe Reader File email scam promoted phishing site

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Quick menu:

Types of malicious emails:

Phishing email icon Phishing Emails

Most commonly, cybercriminals use deceptive emails to trick Internet users into giving away their sensitive private information, for example, login information for various online services, email accounts, or online banking information.

Such attacks are called phishing. In a phishing attack, cybercriminals usually send an email message with some popular service logo (for example, Microsoft, DHL, Amazon, Netflix), create urgency (wrong shipping address, expired password, etc.), and place a link which they hope their potential victims will click on.

After clicking the link presented in such email message, victims are redirected to a fake website that looks identical or extremely similar to the original one. Victims are then asked to enter their password, credit card details, or some other information that gets stolen by cybercriminals.

Email-virus icon Emails with Malicious Attachments

Another popular attack vector is email spam with malicious attachments that infect users' computers with malware. Malicious attachments usually carry trojans that are capable of stealing passwords, banking information, and other sensitive information.

In such attacks, cybercriminals' main goal is to trick their potential victims into opening an infected email attachment. To achieve this goal, email messages usually talk about recently received invoices, faxes, or voice messages.

If a potential victim falls for the lure and opens the attachment, their computers get infected, and cybercriminals can collect a lot of sensitive information.

While it's a more complicated method to steal personal information (spam filters and antivirus programs usually detect such attempts), if successful, cybercriminals can get a much wider array of data and can collect information for a long period of time.

Sextortion email icon Sextortion Emails

This is a type of phishing. In this case, users receive an email claiming that a cybercriminal could access the webcam of the potential victim and has a video recording of one's masturbation.

To get rid of the video, victims are asked to pay a ransom (usually using Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency). Nevertheless, all of these claims are false - users who receive such emails should ignore and delete them.

How to spot a malicious email?

While cyber criminals try to make their lure emails look trustworthy, here are some things that you should look for when trying to spot a phishing email:

  • Check the sender's ("from") email address: Hover your mouse over the "from" address and check if it's legitimate. For example, if you received an email from Microsoft, be sure to check if the email address is @microsoft.com and not something suspicious like @m1crosoft.com, @microsfot.com, @account-security-noreply.com, etc.
  • Check for generic greetings: If the greeting in the email is "Dear user", "Dear @youremail.com", "Dear valued customer", this should raise suspiciousness. Most commonly, companies call you by your name. Lack of this information could signal a phishing attempt.
  • Check the links in the email: Hover your mouse over the link presented in the email, if the link that appears seems suspicious, don't click it. For example, if you received an email from Microsoft and the link in the email shows that it will go to firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0... you shouldn't trust it. It's best not to click any links in the emails but to visit the company website that sent you the email in the first place.
  • Don't blindly trust email attachments: Most commonly, legitimate companies will ask you to log in to their website and to view any documents there; if you received an email with an attachment, it's a good idea to scan it with an antivirus application. Infected email attachments are a common attack vector used by cybercriminals.

To minimise the risk of opening phishing and malicious emails we recommend using Combo Cleaner Antivirus for Windows

Example of a spam email:

Example of an email spam

What to do if you fell for an email scam?

  • If you clicked on a link in a phishing email and entered your password - be sure to change your password as soon as possible. Usually, cybercriminals collect stolen credentials and then sell them to other groups that use them for malicious purposes. If you change your password in a timely manner, there's a chance that criminals won't have enough time to do any damage.
  • If you entered your credit card information - contact your bank as soon as possible and explain the situation. There's a good chance that you will need to cancel your compromised credit card and get a new one.
  • If you see any signs of identity theft - you should immediately contact the Federal Trade Commission. This institution will collect information about your situation and create a personal recovery plan.
  • If you opened a malicious attachment - your computer is probably infected, you should scan it with a reputable antivirus application. For this purpose, we recommend using Combo Cleaner Antivirus for Windows.
  • Help other Internet users - report phishing emails to Anti-Phishing Working Group, FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, National Fraud Information Center and U.S. Department of Justice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why did I receive this email?

Spam emails are not personal. Cyber criminals distribute these emails by the thousand - hoping that at least some recipients will fall for their scams.

I have provided my personal information when tricked by this spam email, what should I do?

If you've disclosed account log-in credentials - change the passwords of all potentially compromised accounts and inform their official support without delay. And if you have provided other private data (e.g., ID card details, credit card numbers, etc.) - immediately contact the corresponding authorities.

I have read a spam email but didn't open the attachment, is my computer infected?

No, opening an email will not initiate any malware download/installation processes. Systems are infected when the attachments or links found in spam mail are opened/clicked.

I have downloaded and opened a file attached to a spam email, is my computer infected?

Whether your system was infected might depend on the opened file's format. If it was an executable (.exe, .run, etc.) - most likely, yes - your device was infected. However, you might have avoided triggering an infection if it was a document (.pdf, .doc, .xls, etc.). These formats may require additional interactions (e.g., enabling macro commands) to begin downloading/installing malware.

Will Combo Cleaner remove malware infections present in email attachments?

Yes, Combo Cleaner is capable of detecting and eliminating practically all known malware infections. Note that since sophisticated malicious programs usually hide deep within systems - running a complete system scan is essential.

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About the author:

Tomas Meskauskas

Tomas Meskauskas - expert security researcher, professional malware analyst.

I am passionate about computer security and technology. I have an experience of over 10 years working in various companies related to computer technical issue solving and Internet security. I have been working as an author and editor for pcrisk.com since 2010. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay informed about the latest online security threats. Contact Tomas Meskauskas.

PCrisk security portal is brought by a company RCS LT. Joined forces of security researchers help educate computer users about the latest online security threats. More information about the company RCS LT.

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Malware activity

Global malware activity level today:

Medium threat activity

Increased attack rate of infections detected within the last 24 hours.

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