Unsung software developers behind rise in online fraud
Tool kits spark explosion in malicious code base, says Symantec
One weekend in June, a little-known Trojan downloader made a major debut on the international malware stage after it managed to burrow its way into more than 10,000 websites in just 72 hours. Infected sites - including one connected to rock musician Bon Jovi and another that raises money for charity work of the late Mother Teresa - suddenly became the agents of Russian crime gang, as they pushed malware on unsuspecting visitors.
The outbreak was the handiwork of MPack, an easy-to-use malware toolkit that sells for as much as $1,000. MPack, which has gone on to infect as many as 500,000 websites, according to some estimates, typifies many of the findings of a new report by security provider Symantec, which analyzes trends in internet-based threats for the first six months of 2007.
From January to June, Symantec counted slightly more than 212,000 new samples of malicious code, an almost three-fold increase from the last six months of 2006 and a more than four-fold increase from the first half of that year. According to Oliver Friedrichs, director of emerging technologies for Symantec's security response, the growth would have been impossible without the help of MPack and kits of similar ilk.
"With the improvements in operating system security and security software ... attackers are increasingly needing to attract a higher volume of variants to avoid detections," he said. The increase "is definitely driven by the attackers trying to evade".
As the bad guys get forced into a corner, they are increasingly relying on professionally developed tool kits such as MPack to ratchet up the number of exploits they throw out.
The modus operandi of MPack also typifies at least two other growing trends in online fraud. The first is the use of trusted online sites, which lower the guard of otherwise savvy web surfers. Increasingly, legitimate sites are being compromised so they infect the users who visit them, a practice that differs from older methods that relied on porn or warez sites to push malware.
"It used to be good enough to avoid visiting the seedier sides of the internet. That's not the case anymore," Friedrichs said. Attackers are "increasingly leveraging mediums you or I wouldn't think twice about in order to subvert you."
MPack also exemplifies the move to multi-staged attacks, described in the report as compromises that "establish a beachhead from which subsequent attacks are launched". Like other toolkits, MPack stitches together many individual attacks that exploit websites and clients. The goal: to better penetrate a user's defenses and tailor the attack to a specific objective, such as obtaining online banking credentials or provide personal details to be used for identity theft.
MPack is a menu-driven platform that makes it easy to infect vulnerable websites. Once they are compromised, the websites then exploit any one of several unpatched vulnerabilities in software used by people visiting those sites. End user machines that are pwned in turn generate spam designed to lure more visitors to those sites.
The technique unleashed a synergy that didn't exist with exploits of a few years ago. The notorious Code Red, for example, attacked a single service running in Microsoft Windows, then simply moved on in search of other vulnerable systems.
Of course, MPack is by no means the only malware tool kit available, and use of such tool kits are by no means limited to the past nine months. But the Symantec report suggests they are playing a bigger role in just about every aspect of online fraud. For instance, just three toolkits were responsible for 42 per cent of all phishing attacks observed by Symantec in the first half of the year.
"The degrees to which these applications are supported and the caliber of the applications certainly leads us to believe there is a concerted team behind the development of these tools that are running [software development] as a business," Friedrichs said.
Among other findings in the report:
The United States continues to be the epicenter for much of fraud happening online. It was the top location for servers hosting underground forums, where stolen credit cards of other types of accounts are sold. Eighty-five percent of credit cards sold in forums were issued by US banks. The US was home to 59 per cent of the servers hosting phishing sites and was the point of origin for 47 per cent of the world's spam. Ten percent of spam zombies were located in the US, higher than any other country.
China had 29 per cent of the word's bot-infected computers, the highest of any country. Beijing alone accounted for seven per cent of the world-wide total.
Symantec documented 39 vulnerabilities in the Internet Explorer browser, down from 54 in the second half of 2006. Vulnerabilities in Mozilla-related browsers dropped to 34, from a previous total of 40. Meanwhile, vulnerabilities in Apple's Safari browser sky-rocketed to 25, more than five times as many documented last period. Opera had seven, up from four. ®