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Microsoft has issued a rare emergency update for its Internet Explorer browser as miscreants stepped up attacks targeting a vulnerability on hundreds of thousands of webpages.

In many cases, the websites distributing the toxic payload are legitimate destinations that have been commandeered, allowing an attacker to snare victims as they surf to online banks, forums, and other trusted sites. There are at least six distinct versions of attack code circulating in the wild, according to researchers at iDefense, a security lab owned by VeriSign.

A web search showed 233,000 pages containing the string ardoshanghai.com/s.js, just one of many web addresses exploiting a weakness in the way IE's data-binding function works. Most of the attacks silently install keylogging software as soon as a victim surfs to a site carrying the exploit. Once installed, the software steals login credentials for online games.

Attack strings in separate SQL injections include 17gamo.com/1.js. Researchers say the number of attack sites is too high to keep exhaustive lists, but Shadowserver is doing an admirable job here.

"The vulnerability is so juicy that we expect it to show up in tool kits fairly shortly," said Rick Howard, intelligence director of iDefense.

The patch was released eight days after reports began circulating that websites were targeting a vulnerability in fully patched versions of IE. This is only the second time in 18 months that Microsoft has issued an unscheduled update. Typically, patches are available on the second Tuesday of each month to allow system administrators time for planning.

Given the prevalence of attacks, there's no good reason why anyone running a Windows machine shouldn't stop what they're doing and install the patch immediately (those with administrative rights, anyway) - doing so is as easy as opening IE and selecting Windows Update from the Tools menu. The patch can also be downloaded directly here.

Howard mentioned the site of "a major financial institution" that he found hosting the exploit, so don't think you're immune just because you steer clear of porn and warez. ®

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