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Virus writing has changed from a cottage industry to a commercial enterprise, according to Sophos, the anti-virus firm Sophos. It reports a 51.8 per cent increase in new viruses in 2004.

Many of the 10,724 new viruses (up from 7,064 in 2003) surrendered control of infected PCs to virus writers, for use in distributing spam or launching DDoS attacks. Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said “Virus writing has become more about trying to generate money than creating mass mailing worms”.

The increased prevalence of rogue dialler Trojans, which change victim’s net settings to dial expensive premium rate accounts, and the use of keylogging Trojans in phishing scams are examples of how virus writers can make money. Sophos estimates 40 per cent of spam comes from infected computers, another way for malware authors to cash in.

According to Sophos, this new breed of commercially motivated virus writers may be new to the scene. “They are less likely to brag about their exploits but police have the possibility of finding them by tracing the money trail from other cybercriminals,” Cluley says.

This year saw an upsurge in arrests of virus writers, most notably Sven Jaschan, the self-confessed author of the infamous NetSky and Sasser worms. The German teenager wrote his malware in a misguided attempt to remove spam-friendly viruses such as MyDoom from infected PCs. Instead he created a monster.

NetSky-P accounted for almost a quarter of virus incidents reported to Sophos, topping its annual chart. Five NetSky variants made it into Sophos’s top 10. So Sven Jaschan was responsible for more than 50 per cent of all virus incidents reported to Sophos in 2004.

All of the top 2004 viruses only infect Windows PCs and most are causing problems months after their initial discovery. Concerns about smartphone viruses are overhyped, says Cluley, who warnes that virus writers are likely to continue targeting Windows PC in 2005 and beyond. Sophos calculates there are now 97,535 viruses in existence. ®

Top ten viruses in 2004, according to Sophos

  1. NetSky-P
  2. Zafi-B
  3. Sasser
  4. NetSky-B
  5. NetSky-D
  6. NetSky-Z
  7. MyDoom-A
  8. Sober-I
  9. NetSky-C
  10. Bagle-AA

Related stories

Sasser kid blamed for viral plague
NetSky tops virus charts by a country mile
Zafi-b speaks in many tongues
Who would you like to attack today?
Gadzooks! My PC has the pox (virus cleanup workshop)

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