Report: Huge spike in mobile malware targets Android, especially mobile payments

mobile malware

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Two very predictable traits drive cybercriminals: First, they tend to focus on targets with the highest odds of success. Second, they prefer attacks that generate profit. A new joint report from Kaspersky Lab and INTERPOL underscores how these two factors contribute to concerning trends in mobile threats. 

The Mobile Cyber Threats report analyzes mobile malware data collected from Kaspersky’s cloud-based Kaspersky Security Network (KSN) during the period of August 1, 2013 through July 31, 2014, for over 5 million Android smartphones and tablets protected by Kaspersky security products.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Android is by far the biggest target for mobile malware. Recent data from IDC indicates that Android comprises about 85 percent of the overall mobile platform market, with iOS a distant second, and the remaining crumbs being shared among Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and other platforms. From a pure numbers perspective, malware designed for Android has the greatest odds of success. Android is also a more open platform, which exposes it to great potential for exploit.

The Android platform is also less secure than its rival platforms because it allows users to download apps from questionable third-party app stores. Add to that the fact that mobile transactions via SMS are a popular method of payment in some regions, and the incentive for mobile malware developers is clear.

Kaspersky Labs estimates that Android is the lucky recipient of more than 98 percent of the mobile threats currently in existence. In the first half of 2014 alone, Kasperky researchers identified 175,442 new, unique malicious programs designed for Android.

Over a ten-month period from August of 2013 through March of 2014, Kaspersky saw the number of attacks per month skyrocket nearly tenfold—from 69,000 per month to almost 650,000. In that same timeframe, the number of users attacked also increased rapidly, from 35,000 to 242,000.

Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Ukraine, and Germany were the countries with the largest numbers of reported attacks—which makes sense, because these are also regions where SMS mobile payments are common. Almost six out of ten mobile malware detections are related to programs capable of stealing a user’s money—generally a Trojan of some sort designed to send expensive SMS messages.

There's a silver lining in the report as well, though. Kaspersky noted a precipitous drop in the total number of Trojan SMS attacks after Russia’s telecom regulator imposed new rules for services paid via SMS. Subscribers are now required to respond to a confirmation message before an SMS transaction can be completed—making it significantly more difficult to surreptitiously initiate SMS payments without the user’s knowledge and consent.

This report should also serve as a warning for retailers, banks, and mobile users in the United States. As Google Wallet, Apple Pay, and other mobile payment systems battle it out to become the mobile payment system of choice, security is going to have to be a major and continuing focus.

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