Cybercriminals reinvent methods of malicious attacks

Cybercriminals are not only leveraging new technologies to propagate cybercrime, but are also reinventing forms of social engineering to cleverly ensnare both consumers and businesses, according to the “Trend Micro Threat Roundup and Forecast 1H 2008” report. As a result, the last six months saw an upswing in Web threats, but steady decreases in adware and spyware that are generated by outdated technical methods and can no longer compete with high-level security solutions.

Exploiting human nature through social engineering and phishing techniques

While social engineering tactics such as the Nigerian phishing scam and the Spanish prisoner scam have been around for decades, cybercriminals continue to refresh and modernize this standard form of trickery based on whatever the trend appears to be. For example, the tools and technologies used to create the interactive nature of popular social networking sites have become a land mine for cybercrime. In March, Trend Micro discovered that over 400 phishing kits designed to generate phishing sites were targeting top Web 2.0 sites (i.e. social networking, video sharing and VoIP sites), free email service providers, banks and popular e-Commerce Web sites.

Recently, a new form of phishing warned potential victims about phishing emails as a way to legitimize that email and then tricked them into clicking on a link that leads to a fraudulent site. Spammers are also recycling old techniques. In February, Trend Micro investigated a voice phishing (aka “vishing”) attempt. The message appeared convincing, with all links leading to corresponding, legitimate target pages, but included a phony number for recipients to call to reactivate their account, which had been supposedly “placed on hold.” Upon calling the phone number, users were asked for their bank card number and PIN, unwittingly opening their bank accounts to the phishers.

Developing malware for blended threats

Malware variants have generally been treated as separate individual threats. Today, profit-motivated Web threats blend various malicious software components into a singular Web threat business model. For example, a cyber criminal sends a message (spam) with an embedded link in the email (malicious URL) or contained in an instant message. The user clicks on the link and is redirected to a Web site where a file (Trojan) automatically downloads onto the user’s computer. The Trojan then downloads an additional file (spyware) that captures sensitive information, such as bank account numbers (spy-phishing). Although seemingly one incident, blended threats are much more difficult to combat and much more dangerous for the user.

Exploiting new technologies

The fast-flux technique is an additional example of criminals abusing technology developments. Fast-flux is a domain-name-server (DNS) switching mechanism that combines peer-to-peer networking, distributed command and control, Web-based load-balancing, and proxy redirection to hide phishing delivery sites. Fast-flux helps phishing sites stay up for longer periods to lure more victims. For example, researchers are challenged to identify malicious Storm domains because developers are using fast-flux techniques to evade detection.

A spike in Web threats accompanied by a decline in adware and keyloggers

Trend Micro witnessed a dramatic increase in Web threat activity during the first half of 2008. Web threats peaked in March to 50,000,000 from approximately 15,000,000 in December 2007.

On the decline are adware, trackware, keyloggers and freeloaders. In March 2007, Trend Micro found that approximately 45 percent of PCs were infected by adware; by April 2008, only 35 percent were reportedly infected. In May 2007, approximately 20 percent of PCs were infected by trackware; that number has dropped to less than 5 percent in April 2008. Keyloggers also showed a small, but steady decline with less than 5 percent of PCs being infected (from over 5 percent in September 2007.)

Other notable findings from the report

High-profile Web sites became highly targeted. In early January, several massive SQL injection attacks were launched on thousands of Web pages belonging to Fortune 500 corporations, state government agencies and educational institutions.

Mobile threats are continuing to play a small part in the new threat landscape. In January, Trend Micro discovered malware disguised as a multimedia file that was used to infect older Nokia mobile phones.

With skill comes precision. Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting more affluent users, such as C-level executives who represent a small number of wealthy, high-level individuals in positions of power to gain access to larger bank accounts, login credentials, or even email addresses that span an entire organization.

Spam volumes decreased briefly at the beginning of 2008 — perhaps a post-holiday break for spammers. Volume spiked in March with a small slip in April. Whenever drops in spam activity occur, Trend Micro researchers interpret this as a sign that spammers are either regrouping to launch a new attack or testing new techniques.

Bots (compromised PCs) spiked from over 1,500,000 in January to over 3,500,000 in February. This was then followed by a dramatic drop in March.

Six-month forecast

Social engineering will remain a key attack method, with more sophisticated tricks evolving. Trend Micro expects cyber criminals to leverage events such as the Summer Olympics, back-to -school shopping, the U.S. election season, soccer and football events, and the holiday season in December.

Cybercriminals will continue to target newly discovered vulnerabilities in “third-party” software applications, such as QuickTime, RealPlayer, Adobe Flash, etc.

Crimeware that relies on technical methods that are becoming obsolete, such as dialers and keyloggers, will continue to slowly decline in number. Grayware such as trackware and browser hijackers will also slowly fall off in number as they cannot scale well in an era of million-member botnets.

Spam volume will continue to rise exponentially with average daily spam volumes predicted to increase by 30- to 50- billion messages per day. Spam and phishing will rise in August to correspond with back-to-school activities and the Olympics. A seasonal spike is also expected in November to correspond with the holidays, with spam forecasted to reach 170 to 180 billion messages per day.

As is occurring now, both spam and phishing will continue to play a part in blended threats. About 0.2 percent-one out of every 500 Web requests-are sent to Web sites hosted on infected PCs, and this trend is expected to continue.

Bots and botnets will continue to play an important part in the threat chain for spamming, information stealing, targeted attacks and large-scale attack campaigns.

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