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Cybercrooks are looking beyond PCs running Microsoft as targets for attack, with Macs increasingly in the firing line of hacker activity.

That's according to the latest edition of the SophosSecurity Threat Report, which predicts that - based on early flaws with the inbuilt Safari browser - Apple's iPhone devices might also become targets in future.

Sophos is by no means the first anti-virus firm to predict increased security problems for Mac users - Symantec has been saying the perceived security advantages of Apple Macs are false for at least two or three years. To date, the limited number of Mac OS X viruses in existence has largely been proof of concept efforts.

Reg Hardware editor Tony Smith said that the last 'serious' Mac virus affected Mac OS 7 (circa 1992). The malware slowed down machines but was easily squashed with the freeware Virex package.

Sophos reckons the comforting picture is set to change with the recent arrival of profit-driven malware targeting Mac users. Until recently, organised criminal gangs have not felt the need to target Mac users when there are so many more poorly protected Windows PCs available.

However, the back end of 2007 witnessed financially-motivated hackers turning towards Macs for the first time. For example, many versions of the malicious OSX/RSPlug Trojan horse, first seen in November 2007, were planted on websites designed to infect surfing Apple Mac computers for the purposes of phishing and identity theft.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said the creation of Mac-specific malware by the gang responsible for the Zlob worm marked a "turning point" in the creation of Mac-specific malware.

Numb3rs

Word Macro viruses are capable of infecting Mac machines running the software. Also, differences in generic detections of viruses mean that counting the precise number of Mac-infecting malware strains is trickier than it might seem.

What's not in question is that the volume of Mac OS X-specific malware is orders of magnitude less than that affecting Windows boxes. Sophos, for example, list 30 Mac OS X malware strains compared to 330,000 Windows pathogens. The US military recently said it was using more Mac systems because they were less commonly attacked.

Cluley said that although Mac systems might be "safer because less people are throwing bombs at them, that doesn't mean they are more secure".

Cluley, whose main computer at home is a Mac running anti-virus software, said Mac users needed to be savvy about avoiding social engineering attacks. "In a sense the number of vulnerabilities in each platform is beside the point. The social engineering lures are the same.

"Macs users might be running a cool OS that updates all the time... but it's still possible to lose money through phishing and identity theft on any device with an internet connection," Cluley argued. "Mac users have for years prided themselves on making smarter decisions than their PC cousins - well, now's the chance to prove it."

Sophos markets a line of anti-virus products for Macs, but these are targeted at corporates rather than consumers. Cluley was keen to downplay any suggestion that its Mac security warning was anything to do with promoting sales. Rather, he said, Sophos (much like Ernest Hemingway) was trying to "tell it as it is". ®

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