Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble

Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble
Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble 

By Brian Krebs staff writer
December 27, 2006

It was the year of computing dangerously, and next year could be worse.

That is the assessment of computer security experts, who said 2006 was 
marked by an unprecedented spike in junk e-mail and more sophisticated 
Internet attacks by cybercrooks.

Few believe 2007 will be any brighter for consumers, who already are 
struggling to avoid the clever scams they encounter while banking, 
shopping or just surfing online. Experts say online criminals are 
growing smarter about hiding personal data they have stolen on the 
Internet and are using new methods for attacking computers that are 
harder to detect.

"Criminals have gone from trying to hit as many machines as possible to 
focusing on techniques that allow them to remain undetected on infected 
machines longer," said Vincent Weafer, director of security response at 
Symantec, an Internet security firm in Cuptertino, Calif.

One of the best measures of the rise in cybercrime is junk e-mail, or 
spam, because much of it is relayed by computers controlled by Internet 
criminals, experts said. More than 90 percent of all e-mail sent online 
in October was unsolicited junk mail, according to Postini, an e-mail 
security firm in San Carlos, Calif. Spam volumes monitored by Postini 
rose 73 percent in the past two months as spammers began embedding their 
messages in images to evade junk e-mail filters that search for 
particular words and phrases. In November, Postini's spam filters, used 
by many large companies, blocked 22 billion junk-mail messages, up from 
about 12 billion in September.

The result is putting pressure on network administrators and corporate 
technology departments, because junk mail laden with images typically 
requires three times as much storage space and Internet bandwidth as a 
text message, said Daniel Druker, Postini's vice president for 

"We're getting an unprecedented amount of calls from people whose e-mail 
systems are melting down under this onslaught," Druker said.

Spam volumes are often viewed as a barometer for the relative security 
of the Internet community, in part because most spam is relayed via 
"bots," a term used to describe personal computers that online criminals 
have taken control of surreptitiously with computer viruses or worms. 
The more computers the bad guys control and link together in networks, 
or botnets, the greater volume of spam they can blast onto the Internet.

At any given time, between 3 million and 4 million compromised computers 
are active on the Internet, according to Gadi Evron, who managed 
Internet security for the Israeli government before joining Beyond 
Security, an Israeli security firm. And that estimate only counts spam 
bots. Evron said millions of other hijacked computers are used to launch 
"distributed denial-of-service" attacks -- online shakedowns in which 
attackers overwhelm Web sites with useless data and demand payment to 

"Botnets have become the moving force behind organized crime online, 
with a low-risk, high-profit calculation," Evron said.

He estimated that organized criminals would earn about $2 billion this 
year through "phishing" scams, which involve the use of spam and fake 
Web sites to trick computer users into disclosing their financial and 
other personal data.

Another trend experts cite is the steady shift of Internet criminal 
activity from nights and weekends to weekdays, suggesting that online 
crime is evolving into a full-time profession for many.

Symantec found that the incidence of phishing scams has dropped 
significantly on Sundays and Mondays in the United States. The firm 
found a similar trend when it examined the pattern of new virus variants 
compiled and released by attackers.

"The bulk of the fraud attacks we're seeing now are coming in Monday 
through Friday, in the 9-to-5 U.S.-workday timeframe," Symantec's Weafer 
said. "We now have groups of attackers who are motivated by profit and 
willing to spend the time and effort to learn how to conduct these 
attacks on a regular basis. For a great many online criminals these 
days, this is their day job: They're working full time now."

Criminals are also becoming more sophisticated in evading anti-fraud 
efforts. This year saw the advent and wide deployment of Web-browser 
based "toolbars" with embedded technology designed to detect when users 
have visited a known or suspected phishing Web site. But many scam 
artists responded by developing new methods of hosting their fraudulent 
Web sites and routing traffic to them that made them harder for law 
enforcement and security experts to thwart.

"We've seen a pretty big evolutionary jump in tactics used by phishers 
over the past year, and I believe it's because some of the toolbar 
makers and the good guys who work to get these scam sites shut down have 
really done a good job at preventing them from being successful," said 
Dan Hubbard, vice president of research for Websense, an online security 
firm in San Diego.

The past 12 months also brought a steep increase in the number of 
software vulnerabilities discovered by researchers and actively 
exploited by criminals. The world's largest software maker, Microsoft, 
this year issued software fixes to 97 security holes that it classified 
as "critical," meaning hackers could use them to break into vulnerable 
machines without any action on the part of the user.

In contrast, Microsoft shipped just 37 critical updates in 2005. 
Fourteen of this year's critical flaws were known as "zero day" threats, 
meaning Microsoft first learned about the security holes only after 
criminals had already begun using them.

The year began with a zero-day hole in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, 
the Web browser of choice for about 80 percent of the world's online 
users. Criminals were able to exploit the flaw to install 
keystroke-recording and password-stealing software on millions of 
computers running Windows software.

At least 11 of those zero-day vulnerabilities were in the Microsoft 
Office productivity software suites, flaws that bad guys mainly used in 
targeted attacks against corporations, according to the SANS Internet 
Storm Center, a security research and training group in Bethesda. 
Microsoft issued patches to correct a total of 37 critical Office 
security flaws this year.

The year also was notable for a wave of attacks exploiting flaws in 
software applications that run on top of operating systems, such as 
media players and Web browsers. In February, attackers used a security 
hole in AOL's popular Winamp media player to install a hidden program 
when users downloaded a seemingly harmless playlist file. This month, a 
computer worm took advantage of a design flaw in Apple Computer's 
QuickTime media player to steal passwords from about 100,000 
bloggers, accounts that were then hijacked and used for sending spam. 
Also this month, security experts spotted a computer worm spreading 
online that was powered by a six-month old hole in a corporate 
anti-virus product from Symantec.

Many security professionals speak highly of Microsoft's Vista, the 
newest version of Windows scheduled for release next month. The program 
includes improvements that should help users stay more secure online, 
such as a Web browser with new anti-fraud tools, as well as operating 
system changes that should make it more difficult for rogue software or 
viruses to make unwanted changes to key system settings and files.

But some security vulnerabilities have been identified in Vista already, 
including at least one in its new browser, Internet Explorer 7. 
Moreover, experts worry that businesses will be slow to switch to the 
new operating system and note that even if consumers adopt it more 
quickly, Microsoft will continue to battle security holes in legacy 
versions of its Office product.

Some software security vendors suspect that a new Trojan horse program 
that surfaced last month, called "Rustock.B," may serve as the template 
for future malicious software. The program morphs itself slightly each 
time it installs itself on a new machine in an effort to evade 
anti-virus software. In addition, it hides in the deepest recesses of 
the Windows operating system, creates invisible copies of itself, and 
refuses to work under common security analysis tools in an attempt to 
defy identification and analysis.

"This is about the nastiest piece of malware we've ever seen, and we're 
going to be seeing more of it," said Alex Eckelberry, president of the 
security vendor Sunbelt Software in Clearwater, Fla. "The new threats 
that we saw in 2006 have shown us that the malware authors are ingenious 
and creative in their methods."

Subscribe to InfoSec News 

Site design & layout copyright © 1986-2015 CodeGods