Cybercriminals boot IT with spam, trojans

Written by R Ravichandran | Chennai | Updated: Aug 1 2009, 03:54am hrs
Spam volumes have increased 141% since March, the longest streak of increasing spam volumes ever, according to McAfee Incs Q2 Threats Report. The report also highlights the dramatic expansion of botnets and the threat from Auto-Run malware.

More than 14 million computers have been enslaved by cybercriminal botnets, a 16% increase over last quarters rise. The report confirmed McAfees first quarter prediction that the surge in botnet growth would send spam levels to new heights, surpassing their previous peak in October 2008 before the takedown of the spam-hosting ISP McColo.

McAfee researchers also found that, over the course of 30 days, Auto-Run malware had infected more than 27 million files. Auto-Run malware, which exploits Windows Auto-Run capabilities, does not require any user clicks to activate and is most often spread through portable USB and storage devices. The rate of detection surpasses even that of the infamous Conficker worm by 400%, making Auto-Run the number one piece of malware detected around the world.

The jump in bot and spam activity we saw in the last three months is alarming and the threat from Auto-Run malware continues to grow, said Mike Gallagher, senior vice president and chief technology officer of McAfee Avert Labs. The expansion of these infections is a grave reminder of the potential harm that can be caused by unprotected computers in homes and businesses.

Fourteen million additional computers have been turned into botnets this quarter. That averages to more than 150,000 computers infected every day, or 20% of the personal computers bought daily. South Korea displayed the largest boost in bot activity; the nation saw a 45% increase in new infected computers over the last quarter. Such botnets were used to execute the DDoS cyberattacks against the White House, the New York Stock Exchange and South Korean government Web sites in early July.

While the growth in South Korea is substantial, it only accounts for less than 4% of the worlds new bots. The US tops the list with 15% of the new zombie computers.

Botnet expansion is also the main driver in the increasing volume of spam, which is now 92% of all email. Spam volumes have now exceeded the highest volume on record by 20%, increasing at a steady rate of roughly 33% each month. In other words, spam volumes grow by over 117 billion emails every day.

As the number of bots continues to grow, malware writers have begun to offer malicious software as a service to those who control botnets. By exchanging or selling resources, cybercriminals distribute new malware to wider audiences instantaneously. Programs like Zeusan easy-to-use Trojan creation toolcontinue to make the creation and management of malware even easier.

Accordingto the report, Twitters growth in popularity has made it a new target for cybercriminals in the last three months. Malware like the Mikeey worm and new variations of the Koobface Trojan attack users through tweets and abbreviated URLs. Spam Twitter accounts are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Twitter administrative accounts have also been hacked on multiple occasions, giving cybercriminals access to the private accounts of celebrities and politicians, such as Britney Spears and Barack Obama and even allowing for the publication of sensitive internal strategy and finance documents to be posted on the Web.

Facebook and MySpace remain strong attack vectors for cybercriminals. In May, spam messages on social networks pointed users to 4,300 new Koobface files.