By Jeremy Kirk
July 02, 2007
IDG News Service
Hackers appear to have stepped up their efforts over the past year to
trick corporate executives into downloading malicious software that can
steal company data, according to new data released today.
MessageLabs Ltd., a security vendor that offers e-mail filtering
services to catch spam and malicious attachments, caught an average of
10 e-mails per day in May targeted at people in senior management
positions, up from just one a day during the previous year, said Mark
Sunner, chief security analyst.
Those 10 e-mails are a tiny percentage of the 200 million e-mails that
MessageLabs scans every day, but the composition of those messages is
alarming, Sunner said.
Many of the e-mails contained the name and title of the executive in the
subject line, as well as a malicious Microsoft Word document containing
executable code. The hackers are trying to trick the victims into
thinking the messages come from someone they know, in the hope that the
victim will willingly install, for example, a program that can record
MessageLabs won't reveal what companies have been targeted, but it has
contacted executives who have been names in the e-mails and discovered
that the family members of the executives have also received messages on
their own, noncorporate e-mail accounts, Sunner said.
Those methods suggests that hackers may be researching victims and
culling data from social networking sites such as Linked In, MySpace or
Facebook, Sunner said.
"If you really want to work out somebody's background ... you can
actually find out a lot," Sunner said.
Tricking a relative into installing malicious code would offer the
hacker another way to collect sensitive data if an executive decides to
do some work on a home computer, Sunner said.
In June, MessageLabs picked up more than 500 of these targeted messages,
with some 30% aimed at chief investment officers, a position that can
include handling mergers and acquisitions. Other positions targeted
include directors of research and development, company presidents, CEOs,
chief information officers and chief financial officers.
Another danger is that the e-mails are often single messages sent to a
single person, rather than a mass spam run. When hackers send out
millions of messages, security companies often either update their
software or change their spam filters to trap the bad messages.
But single messages have a higher chance of slipping through, although
Sunner said MessageLabs' filtering service catches the messages by
analyzing the e-mail's attachment and determining whether it is
potentially harmful. Other security companies catch malware by updating
their software with indicators, or signatures, to detect harmful code or
block code from running based on what it does on a computer, a
technology called behavioral detection.
Tracing where the messages come from is difficult because the sender's
name is always fake, Sunner said. The IP addresses from which the
messages were sent indicate that the computers are located around the
world. Hackers often use networks of computers they already control,
called botnets, to send e-mails.
"Certainly, people need to raise the level of vigilance," Sunner said.
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