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Most Malicious Web Sites are Now Legitimate Sites Compromised by Attackers

The Websense Security Labs report summarises security trends for the second half of 2007. Websense researchers warn Internet users to be wary of what sites they click on and visit—even their favourite trusted sites.

These sites pose a significant business risk because traditional security measures are not designed to handle the attacks, and the attackers are using sophisticated techniques such as spoofing search engine results to drive traffic to infected sites.

Attackers know that compromising sites with generally good reputations – sites that have a built-in group of visitors – coupled with more effective and targeted e-mail lures, can increase the success rate of attacks.

For example, on August 27, 2007, Websense discovered an attack launched within the United Nations' HIV/AIDS Asia Pacific portal, which demonstrates how attackers are compromising legitimate Web sites – rather than creating a new site – in an attempt to elevate the infection rate.

In this case, when visitors opened the United Nations Web site, unprotected users inadvertently downloaded a Trojan horse that infected their computers with malicious code.

Victims became unknowing participants in a larger bot network that attackers can use for future malicious attacks – posing a risk to both personal computer users and businesses.

"More and more, attackers are compromising legitimate Web sites to infect visitors with information-stealing code or to add users' machines to botnets," said Dan Hubbard, vice president of security research, Websense."Additionally, they are increasing the sophistication of their attack methods and building resilient infrastructures as we saw with the Storm worm attacks last year. We believe that attackers will continue to be creative and leverage Web 2.0 applications and user-generated content to create even bigger security concerns for organisations. With this in mind, organisations need to ensure their Web, messaging and data security solutions can protect the avenues hackers seek to exploit for financial gain."

The report clearly shows that event-based and Web 2.0 attacks were on the rise in the second half of 2007. Blended threats with multiple attack vectors evaded traditional signature-based security technologies, such as anti-virus.

In the second half of 2007, Websense, leveraging its unparalleled visibility of the Web and email, successfully identified and mitigated several new high-profile exploits and widespread Web attacks including:

• Web 2.0-based attack directed at MySpace users and their friends – On September 13, 2007, Websense was first to find the Web 2.0, "Phast Phlux Phishing" attack on MySpace, a popular social networking site. After MySpace announced increased measures to protect users from online threats, many users were compromised by this scam that stole confidential user login credentials for malicious purposes. Once infected, victims' MySpace profiles spread the attack virally through "friends lists." Although the malicious domain originated in China, the hosts were most likely the compromised desktops of casual home Web surfers who were unwilling participants in this orchestrated attack.

• Trick-or-treating Trojan horse designed to steal financial information during Halloween – On October 29, 2007, Websense was first to find an information-stealing Trojan horse in the form of a Yahoo! Halloween greeting card that attackers released two days before the holiday. Attackers tricked users without adequate Web security protection into downloading malicious code designed to steal sensitive financial information, including passwords, credit cards and online banking information.

• Government-branded information-stealing Trojan horse – On December 3, 2007, Websense discovered a new e-mail attack variant similar to attacks previously launched claiming to be from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Better Business Bureau. The e-mail message claimed that a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice was filed against the recipient's company and informed the reader that a copy of the original complaint was attached to the e-mail. The attached "complaint" was an information-stealing Trojan horse. At the time of discovery, no major anti-virus vendors had detected the malicious code and protected their customers

Websense Security Labs researchers gather threat intelligence with Websense ThreatSeeker™ technology, which scans more than 600 million Web sites per week searching for malicious code, along with Websense's Hosted Security Services, which scan more than 350 million e-mails per week for e-mail security threats. This unique technology has helped the Websense security research team find several high-impact Web and zero-day exploits. Websense sends out an average of 80 Real-Time Security Updates™ per day to protect more than 42 million employees from external and internal computer security threats.

Additional Highlights from the Second Half 2007 Security Trends Report
• Attackers tried to perfect the blended threat technique: The second half of 2007 saw the use of multiple attack vectors to evade detection and increase attack effectiveness. For example, the Storm Worm writers increased their attack ante by using multiple attack vectors including: domain name system (DNS), Web, peer-to-peer, encryption and several evasion techniques. By using so many different vectors and techniques they made it difficult to take down the malicious sites and prevent future outbreaks.

• In addition to compromising legitimate Web sites, the Websense Security Labs also noted that attackers increasingly used spam to lure users to malicious Web sites. In fact, 65 percent of all unwanted e-mails contained a link to a malicious Web site.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.