In 2005, Organized Crime Will Back Phishers

Phishers proved to be the biggest security threat this year. And analysts say the growth of online organized crime will make it even worse for 2005.
Posted December 23, 2004

Kate Stoodley

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Phishers proved to be the IT security manager's biggest threat this year. And analysts say the growth of online organized crime will make it even worse for 2005.

Analysts also say the security threats IT managers wrestled with in 2004 are morphing into bigger, more damaging, problems for the coming year.

This past year, IT workers have been under the gun more than ever, fending off more aggressive malware, along with more sophisticated hackers who are professionals in it for the money, rather than teenagers looking to show off to their underground hacker friends. IT also has had to deal with armies of 'zombie' machines spewing out millions of pieces of spam and viruses.

And 2005 promises even more money-driven, professional and menacing schemes, according to industry analysts.

''In 2005... what we think has been bad so far, could be a whole lot worse,'' says Richard Fleming, chief technology officer and co-founder of Digital Defense, Inc., a security services firm based in Dallas.

2004: New Online Gangs

This past year proved to be a tough one for IT security administrators with the birth of phishing and heightened spamming attacks. Driving much of these fraudulent teams and their scheming was one simple factor: cash.

Many analysts agree that the most damaging theme in security for 2004 was the deadly combination of social engineering, spam, phishing and viruses with automated attacks.

Spammers teamed up with phishers this past year and together they created convincing, sophisticated schemes to steal not only email addresses but also identities, Social Security numbers and personal financial information. To help them do this, virus writers and spammers built armies of zombie machines. First virus authors infected thousands, if not millions, of computers with viruses and Trojans that opened backdoors, allowing remote control of the machines. Once they built up enough of these zombie machines, they then could use them to send out millions of pieces of spam and more viruses.

''This was a defining year for this combination of the two classes of threats,'' says Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technology officer and vice president of engineering at Qualys, Inc., a vulnerability management services provider based in Redwood Shores, Calif. ''It makes for a very potent kind of attack.''

In the past, the majority of spam hitting inboxes and clogging mail servers contained advertisements for things like mortgages, Viagra and porn. Now, these emails also are carrying viruses, which sometimes infect computers without users even clicking on attachments. These viruses tend to go unnoticed by a user, but track a their Internet use, keystrokes and login passwords.

''Viruses and spam together can be an interesting problem,'' says Fleming. ''Not only are there now more emails with viruses attached, but now hackers are able to exploit systems using malicious technology.''

When phishing schemes first hit the IT scene in 2003, the fake Web sites were easier to detect, and the phishers relied mostly on the user to click on a link or enter their personal information. Now, the game is more sophisticated. The fake Web sites look authentic, making it easier for a user to mistake it for a true site.

Another prevalent security theme of the past year was the rapid rate that viruses and worms spread. Not only did malware work much faster, these worms also infected new machines, such as mobile phones and Instant Messenger software. These technologies hadn't yet experienced much in the line of virus attacks, and analysts worry that security managers are not prepared for it.

''Mobility drives security exposure,'' says Andre Yee, president and chief executive officer of NFR Security, the Rockville, Md.-based provider of intrusion prevention systems. ''Security managers are scrambling to catch up with this threat.''

Analysts agree that the majority of these threats -- whether to handhelds, IM or ordinary desktops -- are increasing in maliciousness. And it's largely because virus authors now are being egged on not just by their hacker friends, but by money.

''The whole threat environment is changing,'' says Timothy Keanini, chief technology officer of nCircle, a San Francisco, Calif.-based enterpriseclass vulnerability management firm. ''We are seeing more and more organized threats. The code, tactics and frameworks look like some of the best software designers' work, but it's actually the bad guys. It is all more efficient and has much more reuse.''

The prospect of financial gain for hackers results in a scary situation for users, says Steve Sundermeier, vice president of products and services of Central Command, Inc., an anti-virus company based in Medina, Ohio. Viruses and worms proliferate at greater speeds than ever before and are much harder to detect.

''The dreaded result used to be a hard drive crash, but now people's livelihood is at stake,'' Sundermeier says.

Continue on to see what analysts are predicting for next year's top security threats...

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