Spam-based phishing attacks declined noticeably during the first half of the year, but cyber-criminals may simply be shifting to other technologies found to be more effective in stealing personal data, according to IBM in its semi-annual security threat report .
“The decline in phishing and increases in other areas (such as banking Trojans) indicate the attackers may be moving their resources to other methods to obtain the gains that phishing once achieved,” is the explanation offered in the “IBM Internet Security Systems 2009 Mid-Year Trend & Risk Report.” It says Russia is the top country of origin for phishing e-mails, with 7.2% share, while China is the top hosting country for spam URLs.
IBM’s semi-annual security report presents a broad view of trends based on its own analysis of volumes of sensor data, Web crawling technologies and other resources used to gather information through its Internet Security Systems division .
In the first half of 2009, 55% of the new malware seen was Trojans, an increase of 9% over last year, the report says. Trojan malware, which includes components called downloaders and info-stealers, are mainly being used in the form of “public-available toolkits” that are “easy to use” by criminals, the report points out.
Phishing attacks may be down because criminals “are likely getting better results with Trojans,” says Dan Holden, X-Force product manager at IBM’s ISS division. “It’s a return on investment issue for them.”
The big picture is that the Web is a “dangerous place,” Holden notes. Criminals are exploiting software vulnerabilities to compromise sites with malicious code or simply taking advantage of the openness of public social-networking forums to place malicious code to go after victims.
In a look at the Internet’s Web sites in general, IBM believes that currently that about 8% of the Internet can be classified as “unwanted content, such as pornographic or criminal Web sites,” which includes those for hacking, illegal drugs, malware, or selling counterfeit goods and the like.
The number of malicious Web links used to trick users into downloading malware or visiting dangerous sites has increased, up 508% in the first half of 2009 in comparison to the number discovered in the first half of 2008, says the report. The U.S. is the top country where such malicious Web links can be found, accounting for 36% of known malicious links, with China holding the second spot.
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Malicious Web links are often embedded in Web sites which are trusted by users as attackers take advantage of Web site vulnerabilities or simply placing malicious code in public Web pages and forums they are allowed to use like anyone else.
“Attackers are focusing more and more on using the good name of trusted Web sites to lessen the guard of end users,” IBM noted.
These Web sites, whether for social networking, news, search engines or Web catalogs, will end up hosting at least one link which will typically point back to a known malicious site. Gambling and pornography sites sometimes seem to have malicious links placed systematically throughout them, leading IBM to comment that there may ties to profit-sharing with criminals.
When it comes to spam, the bulk of it today is still classified as URL spam in which a person clicks to view the spam content and China accounts for 41.4% of all spam URLs, according to the report.
One disturbing trend is that the amount of spam using “well-known and trusted domain names has continued to increase” as legitimate Web sites are exploited by those posting links from forums and other public comment areas associated with them. “Trusted domain names are often used as decoys,” says Holden.
Research by IBM shows a sharp upturn in this kind of URL spam exploit taking advantage of popular and trusted domain names, with the top targets that include Yahoo.com, Ask.com, About.com (owned by the New York Times Company), akamaitech.net (owned by Akamai Technologies); CNN.com (official site of Cable News Network); Go.com (owned by Walt Disney Internet Group); Googlegroups.com (Google’s free service for discussions); plus health-information sites WebMD.com, HealthCentral.com and menshealth.com (published by Rodale).
Also particularly impacted was Rodale.com , MSN.com (a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft for news).; Mansellgroup.net (the site for Mansell Group marketing services and interia.pl, a large Polish Web portal.
In the report, IBM also drew attention to growth in the “anonymous proxy,” defined as Web proxies that “allow users to enter a URL on a Web form instead of directly visiting the target Web site.” IBM warns that if a Web filter is not set up to monitor or block anonymous proxies then the activity that might otherwise be stopped will bypass the filter and allow the user to visit the disallowed Web page. Today, there are more than twice as many anonymous proxies online there were 18 months ago, IBM says. More than 80% of the newly-registered anonymous proxies are hosted in the U.S.