By Daniel Sieberg, Staff Writer for CNN.com
Internet criminals not content to just wreak havoc online
(CNN) -- Internet criminals want your computer, your money and your
identity. And their tactics are becoming increasingly refined and
organized, according to security experts.
The prime objective for hackers and online thieves has shifted from
largely hitting major corporate networks to gaining control of home
desktops, both to steal data and collect processing power.
"Attackers are increasingly seeking financial gain rather than mere
notoriety," said Vincent Weafer, senior director at Symantec
Corp. "During the past year we have seen a significant decrease in the
number of large scale global virus outbreaks and, instead, are
observing that attackers are moving towards smaller, more focused
Symantec this week released its Internet Security Threat Report. The
company says it is compiled from data from 500 Symantec customers,
20,000 sensors that monitor network activity around the world and
Symantec's database of vulnerabilities, which includes about 11,000
The report echoes what many analysts say is a rise in malicious code
for profit; in other words, stealing your sensitive data and selling
or using it. The report's authors also worry that with this tempting
opportunity to make money, virus writers will find stealthier ways to
disable firewalls and other security measures.
"Criminals today view home computers as resources for committing
crimes," writes Jason Milletary, Internet security analyst at the CERT
Coordination Center. "One resource is the increasing amounts of
information of value that we store on our computers, including user
names and passwords for online banks and commerce sites, e-mail
addresses, instant message IDs, and software licensing keys. This
information can be used directly or sold for monetary gain."
Online organized crime
It's that monetary gain that has many security analysts concerned that
the coordination and sophistication behind recent worms and viruses
has escalated to the level of organized crime. Gone may be the days
when it was mostly about kids experimenting with their newfound
hacking skills, though that tendency remains.
With the global nature of the Internet, it's difficult to track down
offenders who hide behind countless networks and often erase their
digital footprints. High-level criminals could be anywhere on the
planet and may recruit younger computer hackers half a world away to
carry out their plans, each one getting a cut of the action, say law
enforcement and security experts.
While terms such as "worm" and "spam" have become part of the
Internet-user vernacular, people should also become familiar with
"bots" and "phishing."
Symantec's Weafer explains bot networks as computers controlled by an
attacker or attackers to launch harmful activities, such as spam,
fraud, extortion and spyware. Symantec's report found that bot network
activity has doubled in the past six months, and these bot networks
often are used for illegal financial gain and are readily available
for third-parties to purchase or rent.
Phishing e-mails appear to be from a reputable source or company,
complete with logo and language, and often ask for personal
data. Symantec found the volume of phishing messages also has doubled
in the past several months, from 3 million messages a day to almost
5.7 million. Often, phishers simply are identity thieves looking for
And the money can add up.
Profits from online scams can range from a few dollars to several
thousand and in some cases, much more.
In 2004 the average loss to consumers who reported Internet-related
fraud to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (a partnership between
the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center) was $240 for
credit card fraud and $907.30 for identity theft.
In June 2005, two men in the UK were sentenced to four to six years in
prison for conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to launder
money. Their operation was connected to phishing scams, which netted
them at least $11.8 million over a couple of years.
Dan Clements, who runs CardCops.com, a service that helps consumers
and companies deal with identity theft, said many phishing e-mails are
designed to get people to launch a virus by opening an attachment or
clicking on a link.
If the hidden program, or Trojan horse, is launched, it could then
look for keywords on your computer, such as "password," "username" or
"login," and send them to the thief's e-mail account. In some cases
the phishing messages contain key-logging software that will enable a
thief to record all your keystrokes, Clements said. Your data can then
end up for sale online in underground chat rooms.
Clements recommends changing passwords and logins every 90 days, and
getting new credit cards every four to six months. If you receive an
e-mail asking to confirm your personal information, he says do not
click on the link in the message. Instead, Clements says to open a new
Web browser window and type in the link. And then delete the message.
Beyond money, the motivations for hackers or computer criminals can
vary. George Spillman is a computer security expert and the event
coordinator for ToorCon, an annual gathering that attracts both
hackers and security professionals. Spillman said hackers sometimes
break in to networks simply because they can; to gain credibility
within the hacking community or because they see it as a puzzle or
challenge. But many times it's more predatory and profitable.
Securing your computer
"The most obvious aspect is trying to steal things like your credit
card number or your passwords to important accounts or, even more
general, just trying to steal 'you' by being able to take your
identity," Spillman said. "Most people don't think much about securing
their computer. They lock their front door when they leave the house
but don't bother to lock their computer."
So what's the best defense?
Howard Schmidt, former White House cyber security advisor, and
president and CEO of R&H Security Consulting, says it's not enough for
people to install a few security programs and move on.
Schmidt offers these tips:
a.. Install security patches and keep security software updated;
b.. Do not click on unexpected e-mail attachments;
c.. Secure your wireless networks at home by turning on encryption
d.. Be cautious when using any peer-to-peer products, such as
e.. Educate family members on how to use the Internet safely;
f.. Be aware of taking a potentially infected laptop between home
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