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Crash! Johnny Depp's not dead, but your PC is

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley is Sophos' Senior Technology Consultant

Plenty of us are familiar with the notion of getting breaking news via Twitter these days.

Ever since a plane pitched into the Hudson River last January, we've recognised the micro-blogging network's ability to help citizen journalists beat the big news agencies to a hot story.

And so it's no surprise that people look to services like Twitter to get the scoops on natural disasters, technology news and celebrity tittle-tattle.

But there's a real danger that members of the public forwarding on news might not be as diligent in checking their sources as the traditional media. Take for instance what happened this weekend on Twitter. I've described it on my blog on the Sophos website, or you can watch the following video:

The phrase "RIP Johnny Depp" became a hot trending topic on Saturday and Sunday, after links were posted to what seemed to be a CNN news report about the Hollywood actor's death in a drunken car crash. Within a matter of minutes the site was swamped with messages from fans and casual onlookers alike, expressing shock at the news - but very few people bothered to check their facts.

The truth was that the site wasn't CNN at all, but a fake page posted by someone as a sick joke. Johnny Depp was alive and well, and knew nothing of the tragedy that was set to have befallen him.

But facts like these came too late for most people, who simply kept spreading news of Depp's "death" across the internet.

So far, so mildly amusing. But the problem really came when hackers decided to exploit the hot trending subject.

Cybercriminals created webpages that contained what they said was video footage of the car crash. Some ghoulish internet users couldn't resist clicking on the links, and found themselves on a webpage telling them that they had to install an ActiveX plugin to view the exclusive video.

And yes, you've guessed it, that plugin was in fact a Trojan horse designed to infect the visiting computer, and potentially steal the identity of its owner.

Remember that sites like Twitter are no replacement for real news websites. Always follow common sense when clicking on links. Ensure that your computer is properly updated with anti-virus software, and think twice before downloading unknown code onto your PC.