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Security researchers have uncovered evidence of a turf war between rival criminal enterprises connected to two of the most sophisticated malware toolkits in current use.

Like competing gangs in the Mafia - for those who followed the HBO series The Sopranos, think the New York-based Lupertazzi crime family and its sometimes enemy the DiMeo crime family, which Tony Soprano ran from New Jersey - the malware groups are fighting for turf and control.

But rather than clashing over who gets to skim money off a garbage collection contract or a major construction project, the cyber criminals are battling to own tens of thousands of compromised computers.

Enter the propagators of a piece of malware Symantec dubs Trojan.Srizbi, one of a handful programs spread by the MPack attack kit. A trojan that makes infected computers part of a botnet that churns out spam, Srizbi is also known to uninstall competing spam malware being spread by another nasty piece of malware dubbed the Storm Worm.

"The Storm Worm criminals appear to have taken exception to that," says Lawrence Baldwin, a malware researcher who has recently observed Storm zombies DDoSing the server Srizbi uses to download installation files. Baldwin is unable to estimate how much traffic the Storm bots are sending to the Srizbi server, but he says attempts to get an infected machine in his lab to update the Storm malware makes him believe the attack is significant.

"All day we've been trying to make that work, and it's not happening," Baldwin said in an interview. "Whatever amount of activity they're shoving at those servers, it appears to be sufficient enough to prevent their downloader from getting a new version of the MPack spam malware."

The rival attack kits are examples of the strides criminals have made in developing highly sophisticated software that makes detection and eradication increasingly difficult.

In one camp is the MPack attack kit. Earlier this month, it became a force to be reckoned with after it enabled crooks to hijack more than 10,000 websites in just a few days. The kit is a professionally developed collection of back-end web components built on PHP that bundles together many different malware tools.

Among other things, it logs detailed information about the computers it attacks, including the IP addresses of machines it has infected and what exploits a particular user is vulnerable to. A gang in Russia is believed to sell the kit, according to Symantec.

Not to be outdone is the Storm Worm, which got its name after an early version of the malware spread through mass email promising information about winter storms that ravaged Northern Europe in January. Because Storm employs a peer-to-peer protocol, its command and control center is highly decentralized, making it difficult to shut down.

As we reported earlier, a recent version of the Storm Trojan (technically, it's not a worm) comes disguised as an e-postcard but actually recruits zombies for a botnet. The malware is highly resourceful, scanning a victim machine first for a javascript vulnerability, and if that doesn't work, moves on to try one of three other exploits.

Only about 25 per cent of the anti-virus scanners detected the Trojan when the SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center recently ran it through 30 different security programs.

According to Baldwin, who has acquired copies of the latest Storm Trojan and has been observing it in his lab, the malware has been working overtime lately.

"We believe the same system we were running [and infected by the Storm Trojan] was simultaneously running the ecard scam and DDoSing competitors," he says. ®

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