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Virus writers at war

Rival gangs and security industry both under attack

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The confrontation between virus writers and the anti-virus industry is escalating, with malware authors also going after fellow VXers.

The dog eat dog atmosphere has resulted in cybercriminals stepping up their attacks against the security industry and government organisations, according to a report Kaspersky Labs published this week. The report, Malware Evolution 2005, Part II, puts the ramp up in the cyberhooligan activity down to greed. VXers are no longer satisfied with the profits to be made from infecting consumers, so they've stepped up their activity and adopted more aggressive tactics in a bid to increase the effectiveness of malware attacks.

According to Kaspersky, cybercriminals are tracking the activity of the anti-virus industry as closely as the anti-virus industry is tracking malware authors. For example, they use multi anti-virus scanners to test new modifications of existing malicious programs against vendors' anti-virus databases prior to their release.

Ne'er-do-wells are also attempting to subvert almost every stage of anti-virus update development, for example by launching denial of service attacks against honeypot networks of PCs set up by security vendors. The aim of such attacks, along with the targeted mass mailing of malicious programs, is to make the interception of malicious code samples needed to produce security updates more difficult. Packing malware packages using multiple compression programs and writing malware that stops infected users from reaching the update servers of anti-virus vendors are also becoming more commonplace tactics.

"Until recently, only a few groups of virus writers have behaved in the way described above. However, data from 2005 shows that existing groups are banding together, and new groups are emerging," Kaspersky Lab virus analyst Yury Mashevsky said.

VXers are also turning against each other. Some cybercrims use malicious programs that destroy the software developed by rival groups. Malware authors are fighting each other for control of infected PCs. In early November 2005, for example, an attempt to hijack a botnet was detected that resulted in a network of infected computers changing hands three times in one day. "Criminals have realised that it is much simpler to obtain already infected resources than to maintain their own botnets, or to spend money on buying parts of botnets which are already in use," Kaspersky reports.

The target of attacks is also shifting towards government organisations. Kaspersky notes a large number of attacks against government-owned banks, e-trading portals, and the military last year. Although law enforcement agencies have steeped up their efforts to apprehend virus writers, these efforts are frustrated by the international scope of cybervandal activity, with miscreants commonly targeting overseas targets, and patchy response efforts.

"2005 shows that cybercriminals are likely to continue to focus on mobile devices and the financial sector. However, rootkits, botnets, cyber-blackmail, and other criminal activities are likely to remain widespread," the report concludes. ®

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