Complex Trojans and next generation malware is on the way

While e-mail users may have noticed a significant drop in spam in recent months, cybercriminals are gaining ground with creative new phishing methods and making exploit kits more robust, reveals the Security Labs Report from M86 Security.

Key findings:

Third-party phishing on the rise

A decline in phishing e-mails was observed, as a result of users becoming more aware of fake e-mails claiming to be from banking institutions. However, cyber-thieves have found more effective means of stealing bank information from users visiting legitimate banking websites. Malware, including Trojans like SpyEye and ZeuS, is an increasingly popular method used by criminals to make off with personal and financial information.

Additionally, attacks purporting to come from third-party agencies, such as the IRS and the New Zealand Department of Inland Revenue, are being used to phish for a user’s bank account information under the guise of offering bogus tax refunds. This makes it easier for thieves to obtain information from unsuspecting users, by providing multiple options to the user to select the bank of their choice, thus eliminating the guessing game typically played to determine which bank they are with. UK banking customers have been similarly affected, receiving a falsified e-mail purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs, with the same legitimate looking page with options for all banks in that specific region.

E-mail spam is declining, though far from dead

Spam volume has reduced considerably, at year end this was down to one third of the level seen in June 2010. Using the M86 Security Labs Spam Volume Index, which tracks changes in the volume of spam received by representative domains, the research shows that spam reduction was affected by botnet disruptions and the closure of a popular affiliate program. Spam was at the lowest levels seen since November 2008, when the rogue hosting provider McColo was taken offline.

Botnet take-downs and closure

Notably,, an underground affiliate program used by several spamming botnets, was shut down in late September 2010. was linked to Glavmed and the “Canadian Pharmacy” brand of bogus online pharmacies. The Rustock botnet was most affected, with its spam output drastically reduced. However, plenty of other botnets moved up to take its place, and trends in this threat category will continue to be monitored for changes and increases. The top categories of spam message include those promoting replica watches, fake diplomas and cheap watches.

In August, notorious spammer/botnet, Pushdo/Cutwail, was taken down, resulting in a significant spam volume decrease, due to a coordinated takedown effort by security researchers. According to Anstis, such effects are typically short lived, with the botnets soon resuming normal activities.

Another well-known botnet, Mega-D, has been taken down multiple times since 2008, only to return. In November 2010, the FBI identified and apprehended Oleg Nikolaenko, a Russian botnet operator. The botnet has subsequently generated less than five percent spam by volume. M86 Labs analysts point to the continuing need to go after and prosecute botnet operators for more long-term impact on spam operations and volumes.

Exploit kits with virus scanners, social network attacks increase

As previously reported, the popularity of exploit kits is on the rise. The newest trend is that more kits are offering services to their customers thus becoming more of a “one-stop shop.” The scanning module in the Siberia Exploit kit and Neosploit’s new Malware-as-a-Service offering are just a couple of significant examples signaling a shift in exploit kit capabilities.

While traditional forms of spamming via e-mail are down, spam techniques using such social networking sites as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, continue to expand. The LinkedIn scam has a legitimate look and feel, inviting users to connect with others in their “network,” only to be connected with the Phoenix exploit kit infection page, which tries to exploit the victims’ computers through various vulnerabilities.

“What is especially noteworthy is that our findings demonstrate that vulnerabilities already patched are continuing to be successfully used for malicious gain. Organizations and individuals must get better at updating their applications and staying ahead of attacks on their devices and their networks,” said Bradley Anstis, vice president of technical strategy, M86 Security. “While the M86 Security Labs report notes that great strides are being made in thwarting cyber-criminal attempts, there is always something else coming through the back door.”

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