The 10 Biggest Security Risks You Don't Know About

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Zombie PC Armies Set to Attack

Danger level: High | Likelihood: High | Target: Windows users

Botnets were once the province of technically adept criminals who used these remote-controlled armies of infected PCs to send spam, launch Internet attacks, or spread spyware. But now even unsophisticated cyberthugs can generate their own botnet and target your PC, thanks to savvier miscreants who create and sell simple tools for that purpose.

Many people have made a business out of building and selling self-contained bot development kits that let potential herders (as individuals who run a botnet are called) direct their own scam. The kits, which cost anywhere from $20 to $3000, permit aspiring criminals to create full-featured botnets and other malicious software, ranging from customizable worms to keyloggers--no techie chops required. "There are tons of [kits]--fifty, sixty, a hundred different ones," says Eric Sites, vice president for research and development at Sunbelt Software, a maker of antispyware programs.

Clever Web Controls

It gets worse. After building a new bot and sending it out to unsuspecting computer users, the wannabe hacker can use sophisticated command-and-control tools to direct the resulting network easily.

Sites's team at Sunbelt, along with the Rapid Response Team at security firm iDefense Labs, has found a new Web-based botnet control they've dubbed Metaphisher. Instead of issuing text commands, herders can use the control's highly graphical user interface, complete with well-designed custom icons and intuitive controls. Point, click, hack.

According to iDefense Labs, Metaphisher-controlled bots have infected more than a million PCs worldwide. The command suite even encrypts communications between itself and the bot herder, and relays information about virtually every aspect of infected PCs to the botmaster--including their geographic location, the Windows security patches installed, and the browsers other than Internet Explorer loaded on each PC.

All these easy-to-use kits and controls undoubtedly contribute to the huge numbers of bot-infected PCs that law enforcement officials have uncovered during recent criminal investigations. For example, Jeanson James Ancheta, a 21-year-old California man, was recently sentenced to 57 months in prison after pleading guilty to violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He had been running a lucrative criminal enterprise based on a botnet with as many as 400,000 infected systems. And three bot herders arrested in the Netherlands last fall are thought to have controlled a staggering 1.5 million zombie PCs.

The low barrier to entry means that even as law enforcement catches some herders, eager newcomers join their ranks every day. "It's amazing how many people get into running botnets just because they see someone else doing it and making money," says Joe Stewart, a senior security researcher at the South Carolina-based firm Lurhq, a provider of managed security services.

How It Works: Quick Bot Deployment With Simple Tools

Illustration: Steven Lyons

  1. A would-be criminal buys a bot-building kit online for a small fee.
  2. With no programming skills, the criminal uses his kit to build a new bot not yet known to antivirus makers.
  3. The criminal sends his new bot out as an e-mail attachment or plants it on malicious Web sites.
  4. The resultant botnet rakes in cash with spam, spyware, and denial-of-service attacks.

Defenses

  1. Avoid unknown sites and don't click links in unsolicited e-mail. Like most malware, bots tend to be distributed in these ways.
  2. Remain suspicious of e-mail attachments, even when a message seems to come from somebody you know. Crooks love to use genuine e-mail addresses in "spoofed" virus-laden e-mail missives.
  3. Consider an alternate browser such as Firefox or Opera. IE has been a favorite hacker target.
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