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Cybercrooks are developing more sophisticated techniques to steal confidential data. According to the latest edition of Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report, malicious hackers are increasingly using bot-networks, modular malicious code and targeted attacks on web applications and web browsers to carry out cyber raids.

The report also revealed that bot-infected computers are increasingly being used for criminal activities such as denial of service-based extortion attempts. On average, Symantec monitored 1,402 DoS attacks per day in the last six months of 2005, a 51 per cent increase over that recorded in the first half of 2005.

China experienced the largest increase of bot-infected computers, with 37 per cent growth, putting the Asian country behind only the US in numbers of compromised PCs under the control of hackers. Symantec predicts a boom in the use of zombie clients, as attackers exploit an increasing number of vulnerabilities in web-based applications and web browsers to plant malicious code.

"Gone are the days when script-kiddies used to develop attacks which would cause maximum damage and attract as much attention as possible. The people behind today's cybercrime are using silent and more targeted methods to steal data and other sensitive information undetected," Symantec spokesman Richard Archdeacon said. "The increased use of bot networks is coupled with the emergence of an online 'mafia' which sees a few 'Mr Bigs' controlling massive parts of the internet for financial gain."

In addition to the use of botnets, phishing attacks continue to plague net users. Between July and December 2005, phishing attempts made up one in every 119 emails, an increase from one in every 125 messages in the first half of the year.

Symantec recorded the largest documented number of new vulnerabilities since it set up its database in 1998. During 2H2005 1,896 new vulnerabilities were recorded by Symantec - about 10 new security bugs per day. Four out of five of these bugs were said to be easy to exploit, and 97 per cent of the vulnerabilities were considered moderately or highly severe.

Also in this period, an average of 6.8 days elapsed between the announcement of a vulnerability and the release of associated exploit code, an increase from the six "days to exploit" figure recorded in the first half of 2005. An average of 49 days elapsed between the disclosure of a vulnerability and the release of a vendor-supplied patch.

Symantec says hackers are establishing a black market in the trade of vulnerability data to assist them in developing more potent criminal attacks.

"Updating and patching security systems is still the most effective way of staying protected from these threats. Despite the increasingly sophisticated methods being employed by cyber criminals, the methods used still predominantly rely on email and internet downloads to spread," Archdeacon added. ®

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