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Analysis Hacking and phishing threats that PC users have suffered for years are now becoming part and parcel of the online gaming experience for users of Microsoft's Xbox console.

Chris Boyd (AKA PaperGhost) - who recently joined Sunbelt Software as a security researcher and is a long-time dedicated gamer - has studied the growth of tricks designed to allow hackers to take over privileged Xbox accounts via social engineering or launch denial of service attacks against rivals.

He warns the development of serious malware and social engineering threats in the world of online gaming has made the environment as risky as other parts of the net. These threats are not being taken seriously enough by either gamers or the industry itself, Boyd warns.

Industry efforts are focused around combating piracy rather than hacking, the stealthier but arguably larger risk, while the majority of gamers remain ignorant of the hacking perils circulating in the games universe.

Microsoft made a big splash in November after it banned modders from Xbox Live, its online gaming service. However, little or nothing is heard of the many malicious packages designed to exploit the Xbox or its gamers.

Three-ring circus

Boyd explained that there are three main areas of exploitation on Xbox Live: phishing and social engineering, hardware hacking and denial of service attacks.

Although gaming logins are still ultimately lost via phishing, this often only happens after prospective marks are groomed for abuse by fraudsters who use the online gaming environment to con victims into trusting them in the first place.

In addition, miscreants often run sophisticated social engineering scams. "Increasingly, manipulation of files on the Xbox hard drive is taking place to make the scams more sophisticated," Boyd explained, adding that the ability to search for users with high gamescores (and therefore the most unlocked bonuses, features, and perks) on Xbox forums is used by gaming grifters to target potential marks, as explained here.

Live and let frag

The first, and most prominent, area of Xbox exploitation is using a combination of phishing and social engineering to obtain user accounts ( Gamertags). These gametags are tied to Windows Live IDs, which are often sold or traded on forums or via auction sites.

Live IDs with high point scores attached to them can retail for 10 times as much as ordinary accounts. "Considering many of the account dumps we see have a few hundred (or thousand) Live IDs in them, hackers can make a lot of money very quickly," Boys explained.

Malware - usually in the form of fake point generators - often comes into play. "Fake points generators that run on your PC promise free Microsoft points in return for your login details," Boyd explained. "Of course, what happens is your data is sent back to base via email should you enter it into the program. Typically, the phishers will also hijack YouTube accounts and place fake 'it works' messages on the videos promoting them [phishing tricks]," he added.

An example of a YouTube video designed to drive traffic to a Xbox phishing site can be found in a blog post by F-Secure here. High points accounts come with privileges and can be cashed-in through sales on the digital underground or even more openly via auction sites.

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