Details on How a Sophisticated Web Attack Works

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WASHINGTON -- A sophisticated new attack that uses three pieces of malware to turn PCs into zombies that can be sold to criminal groups has appeared on the Internet this week, security vendor Computer Associates International (CA) said Thursday.

A version of the Bagle worm downloader that CA has dubbed Glieder serves as a "beachhead" from which attackers can install more-serious malware on computers, CA said. Ultimately, through tactical coordination between Glieder and other invasive programs, infected computers can have their antivirus and firewall software disabled and can be turned into remotely controlled zombies that may then be used to mount large cyberattacks, CA said.

"This is so coordinated that it's remarkably sophisticated," said Roger Thompson, CA's director of malicious content research.

Stops Your Antivirus Tools

CA noted eight variants of Glieder released one after the other on Wednesday, "dazzling the Internet with their speed and deployment to maximize the number of compromised victims," the company said. "The whole point is to get to as many victims as fast as possible with a lightweight piece of malware."

The Glieder downloader then directs the infected computer to a Web site to download the Fantibag Trojan horse, which targets computers' networking features to prevent their systems from communicating with antivirus vendor update tools and with Microsoft's update Web site. Next, the infected computer downloads the Mitglieder Trojan horse, which disables firewalls and antivirus software and opens a back door, allowing the computer to be controlled remotely by the hackers.

"It turns computers into zombies," Thompson said of the attack. "It's all about these guys building their botnet. It's all about making money."

On Wednesday, as soon as antivirus vendors updated their programs to detect the latest version of Glieder, the attackers would modify the downloader program, resulting in an arms race, Thompson added. The use of three separate pieces of malware to attack a computer shows a new level of coordination, he said. A black market for compromised computers drives these types of zombie attacks, with criminals paying for groups of machines to use as spam relays or as sources of personal information to use in identity-theft schemes.

Others Wary

Other Internet security experts were less impressed with the Glieder attacks. Though the pairing of Glieder with Fantibag may be new, Glieder doesn't differ from older Bagle variants in being designed to work as a downloader program that can secretly install software on compromised machines, said Ken Dunham, director of malicious code at IDefense, another cybersecurity vendor.

CA warned that the new attacks may be the work of professional criminals. "There's plenty of evidence to suggest that all these things are being done by organizations," Thompson said.

Like CA, Jimmy Kuo, a research fellow with the McAfee Anti-Virus Emergency Response Team, sees a black market for zombie machines. McAfee has found evidence of criminals paying hackers to send out rounds of zombie malware attacks, he said. "The payments range from the high hundreds of dollars to the low thousands of dollars," he said.

Kuo noted that downloader attacks are becoming common and that nearly all such attacks are associated with criminal activity. In some cases, zombie machines are used to attack corporate networks by flooding them with e-mail, he said. "It's probably to the point where somewhere in the high 90 percent of all malware is associated with a money-making scheme," he said.

Dunham suggested that small-time criminals or loosely organized hacking groups, not organized crime syndicates, may be behind most such attacks.

"It is increasingly sophisticated, but not by much," Dunham said of the downloader-type attacks. "I'm not very impressed with them. I've seen much more sophisticated attacks with spyware this year than any of the downloader attacks."

Thompson and Dunham advised computer users to avoid opening any executable files they receive in e-mail. In most cases, security policies on corporate networks prohibit e-mail with executables from being delivered, but most PCs don't have the same protection, Thompson said.

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