Hackers follow the money, IBM research shows

Existing threats such as phishing and document format vulnerabilities have continued to expand, even as users improve security, according to a new IBM report. The X-Force report reveals three main threats that demonstrate how in 2009 attackers increasingly targeted people using the Internet for monetary gain or data theft. The appearance of new malicious Web links has skyrocketed globally in the past year.

Phishing attacks, or sending email that falsely claims to be from a legitimate organization, also increased dramatically in the second half of 2009. It surpassed the monthly volume seen in 2008, with activity coming from countries that had not previously been in the game.

Vulnerability disclosures for document readers and editors also continued to soar. Of the two predominant types of document vulnerabilities – office documents including spreadsheets and presentations and PDF documents – the latter has continued to dominate the charts.

“Despite the ever-changing threat landscape, this report indicates that overall, vendors are doing a better job responding to security vulnerabilities,” said Tom Cross, manager of IBM X-Force Research. “However, attackers have clearly not been deterred, as the use of malicious exploit code in Web sites is expanding at a dramatic rate.”

The 2009 X-Force Trends and Risk Report also finds that:

  • Vulnerabilities have decreased. Overall, 6,601 new vulnerabilities were discovered in 2009, an 11 percent decrease over 2008. The report indicates declines in the largest categories of vulnerabilities such as SQL Injection, in which criminals inject malicious code into legitimate Web sites, and ActiveX controls, or small programs used on the Internet to help with tasks, may indicate some of the more easily discovered vulnerabilities in these classes have been eliminated and security is improving.
  • Critical and high vulnerabilities with no patch have decreased significantly year-over-year in several key product categories. Vulnerabilities with Web browsers and document readers and editors have decreased, which indicates that software vendors have become more responsive to security issues.
  • Vulnerability disclosures for document readers and editors and multimedia applications are climbing dramatically. 2009 saw more than 50 percent more vulnerability disclosures for these categories versus 2008.
  • New malicious Web links have skyrocketed globally. The number has increased by 345 percent compared to 2008. This trend is further proof that attackers are successful at both the hosting of malicious Web pages and that Web browser-related vulnerabilities and exploitation are netting a serious return.
  • Web App vulnerabilities continue to be the largest category of security disclosures – The number of Web application vulnerabilities found by organizations has not decreased or become less of a threat. 49 percent of all vulnerabilities are related to Web applications, with cross-site scripting disclosures surpassing SQL injection to take the top spot. 67 percent of web application vulnerabilities had no patch available at the end of 2009.
  • Attacks on the Web using obfuscation increased significantly. Often launched using automated exploit toolkits, many attacks use obfuscation – an attempt to hide these exploits in documents and Web pages – to avoid detection by security software. IBM Managed Security Services detected three to four times the number of obfuscated attacks in 2009 versus 2008.
  • Phishing rates dipped mid-year but rose dramatically in the last half of 2009. Brazil, USA and Russia were the countries where most malicious attacks originated, supplanting Spain, Italy and South Korea at the top in the 2008 report.

Phishing is still focused on the financial industry. While some phishing scams target logins and passwords, others attempt to entice victims into entering detailed personal information by posing as government institutions. By industry, 61 percent of phishing emails purport to be sent by financial institutions, whereas 20 percent purport to come from government organizations.