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Trojan plunders $480k from online bank account

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A Pennsylvania organization that helps develop affordable housing learned a painful lesson about the hazards of online banking using the Windows operating system when a notorious trojan siphoned almost $480,000 from its account.

News reports here and here say $479,247 vanished from a bank account belonging to the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority after it was hit by Clampi. The trojan gets installed by tricking users into clicking on a file attached to email and then lies in wait for the victim to log in to online financial websites. The authority has so far been able to recover $109,467 of the stolen loot.

The theft is part of a rash of online heists that have stolen millions of dollars from businesses and non-profit organizations. While circumstances are different in each case, they all point to a single point of failure: Each theft relied on the successful compromise of a Windows-based system.

It was this undeniable fact that led Brian Krebs - author of the Security Fix blog which over the past month has published a series of articles detailing high-stakes bank thefts - to recommend Windows machines no longer be used by those who choose to do their banking online.

"I do not offer this recommendation lightly," he wrote. "But I have interviewed dozens of victim companies that lost anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000 dollars because of a single malware infection."

To be clear, that's malware that ran only on Windows.

Indeed, the Clampi variant that hit the Cumberland redevelopment authority reportedly was able to succeed even though employees used an automated clearing house token that generated a different eight-digit access code every minute or so. Redevelopment authority officials didn't return calls seeking comment for this article.

The obvious solution for many is to simply close all online banking accounts. Contrary to what banks say, writing checks really isn't that much of a hassle, at least if you don't write that many of them.

But if you insist on making online payments and transfers, the best decision you can make is to stop using Windows to make those transactions. Even if you're careful, software vulnerabilities these days are simply too numerous and the malware too sophisticated for anyone to know with a reasonable amount of certainty that their machines aren't compromised.

True, there's no way to know your Mac or Linux machine isn't compromised, either. But so far, there are few if any reports of banking trojans that attack those systems. (And yes, as Apple's market share continues to rise, it's likely OS X will be targeted. We can cross that bridge when we get to it.)

But in this age of free Live CD boot disks, there's no good reason for anyone to continue using Windows-based machines to access sensitive financial sites. Just ask the folks at Cumberland's redevelopment authority. ®

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