PhotoWhile the world economy mostly just marked time in the first quarter of 2013, the “hacker economy,” populated by operators who use a large number of threats to compromise corporate and consumer computers, did quite well.

Security software maker McAfee reports hackers continued to make inroads in their increasingly sophisticated efforts to gain access to everything from your online banking account to the space on your hard drive. It all makes today's computing environment very different from the late 1990s, when most of the threats were of a more benign nature.

“Ten years ago we were still at that transitional point, transitioning from geeks trying to prove a geeky point to a Mafia-dominated black market trying to infect people in order to get their information,” said Adam Wosotowsky, Messaging Data Architect at McAfee.

While it is true that today's protections are better and more robust, the threat is even more dangerous. The stakes are higher. After all, ten years ago almost no one used online banking.

“The targeting level, the amount of information and their willingness to try financial fraud to get money out of you is much more aggressive and dangerous today,” Wosotowsky said.

Koobface

In the first quarter of 2013 MacAfee found a big spike in the presence of a social networking worm called Koobface. In fact, it found almost three times as many samples of Koobface as it found in the previous quarter. Almost anyone who has spent much time on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter has seen examples of Koobface.

“It's something that works very well in a social networking environment,” Wosotowsky said. “They put up a message that says something like 'hey, I found naked pictures of you on the Internet, click here.' Someone clicks on that and they try to do a drive-by download or some sort of Javascript that either infects their machine or tries to do something with their account in order to send the same message to more of their friends and then more of their friends.”

If you haven't come across a message like that, it's because the social networking companies monitor what's in their system. When they see something like that, they remove it. But they can't be everywhere at once and many of these bogus messages manage stay up for a while.

“As a way to distribute malware, it's a pretty good one,” Wosotowsky said.

When you see messages that make you feel even slightly nervous or uncomfortable, Wosotowsky said the best course of action is to simply ignore them. If they are malware the social networking site will at some point remove them.

Low profile

Photo
Adam Wosotowsky

With organized crime more heavily involved in today's malware, the hackers' footprints are harder to detect. In the past many viruses and malware might “brick” a machine. In other words, it might make your machine run slower or grind to a halt altogether. It was a dead giveaway that your computer had been infected. But times have changed.

“Operators in the Mafia-dominated malware area don't want to brick a machine,” Wosotowsky said. “They want to make money off those machines, whether it's sending spam, doing denial-of-service attacks or engaging in financial fraud. “If you've been infected with a really professionally-made virus, your computer might even run better afterward.”

In spite of early predictions that 2013 would be the year of mobile malware, MacAfee reports the evidence has yet to emerge. In fact, growth of mobile malware declined slightly during the period. However, there was an alarming 40% increase in Android malware.

“What we've started to see are attempts to do drive-by downloads on the Android operating system itself,” Wosotowsky said.

That means the threat isn't just from downloading a suspect app, as it was in the past. It all points to the need to be more careful online, whether you are at your desk or on the go, and taking advantage of every security measure available.

“Having up-to-date anti-virus on you system is important but people should understand that it is your last line of defense,” Wosotowsky said. “Once hackers get past your anti-virus, they're going to have their way with your machine.”


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