Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble

Cyber Crooks Mailbox
(Illustration by Laura Stanton - The Washington Post)
By Brian Krebs staff writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It was the year of computing dangerously, and next year could be worse.

That is the assessment of computer security experts, who said 2006 was marked by an unprecedented spike in junk e-mail and more sophisticated Internet attacks by cybercrooks.

Few believe 2007 will be any brighter for consumers, who already are struggling to avoid the clever scams they encounter while banking, shopping or just surfing online. Experts say online criminals are growing smarter about hiding personal data they have stolen on the Internet and are using new methods for attacking computers that are harder to detect.

"Criminals have gone from trying to hit as many machines as possible to focusing on techniques that allow them to remain undetected on infected machines longer," said Vincent Weafer, director of security response at Symantec, an Internet security firm in Cuptertino, Calif.

One of the best measures of the rise in cybercrime is junk e-mail, or spam, because much of it is relayed by computers controlled by Internet criminals, experts said. More than 90 percent of all e-mail sent online in October was unsolicited junk mail, according to Postini, an e-mail security firm in San Carlos, Calif. Spam volumes monitored by Postini rose 73 percent in the past two months as spammers began embedding their messages in images to evade junk e-mail filters that search for particular words and phrases. In November, Postini's spam filters, used by many large companies, blocked 22 billion junk-mail messages, up from about 12 billion in September.

The result is putting pressure on network administrators and corporate technology departments, because junk mail laden with images typically requires three times as much storage space and Internet bandwidth as a text message, said Daniel Druker, Postini's vice president for marketing.

"We're getting an unprecedented amount of calls from people whose e-mail systems are melting down under this onslaught," Druker said.

Spam volumes are often viewed as a barometer for the relative security of the Internet community, in part because most spam is relayed via "bots," a term used to describe personal computers that online criminals have taken control of surreptitiously with computer viruses or worms. The more computers the bad guys control and link together in networks, or botnets, the greater volume of spam they can blast onto the Internet.

At any given time, between 3 million and 4 million compromised computers are active on the Internet, according to Gadi Evron, who managed Internet security for the Israeli government before joining Beyond Security, an Israeli security firm. And that estimate only counts spam bots. Evron said millions of other hijacked computers are used to launch "distributed denial-of-service" attacks -- online shakedowns in which attackers overwhelm Web sites with useless data and demand payment to stop.

"Botnets have become the moving force behind organized crime online, with a low-risk, high-profit calculation," Evron said.

He estimated that organized criminals would earn about $2 billion this year through "phishing" scams, which involve the use of spam and fake Web sites to trick computer users into disclosing their financial and other personal data.

Another trend experts cite is the steady shift of Internet criminal activity from nights and weekends to weekdays, suggesting that online crime is evolving into a full-time profession for many.

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