Malware subscription emerges on the Net


Like many just-launched e-commerce sites, this unnamed Web site has a fairly functional, if somewhat rudimentary, home page. A list of options at the top of the home page lets visitors transact business in Russian or English, spells out the terms and conditions for software use and provides details on payment options.

But contact details are, shall we say, sparse. That’s because the merchandise being hawked on this particular site isn’t exactly legitimate. The site offers malicious code that webmasters with criminal intent can use to infect visitors to their sites with a spyware Trojan.

In return for downloading the malware to their sites, Web site owners are promised at least 50 Euros or about US$66 every Monday, with the potential for even more for “clean installs” of the malicious code on end user systems. “If your traffic is good, we will change rates for you and make payout with new rates,” the site promises.

As organized gangs increasingly turn to cybercrime, sites like the one described are coming to represent the new face of malware development and distribution, according to security researchers. Unlike malicious code writers of the past who tended to distribute their code to a tight group of insiders or in underground newsgroups, the new breed is far more professional about how it hawks, plies and prices its wares, they said.

“We’ve been seeing a growth of highly organized managed exploit providers in non-extradition countries” over the past year or so, said Gunter Ollmann, director of security strategies at IBM’s ISS X-Force team. For subscriptions starting as low as US$20 per month, such enterprises sell “fully managed exploit engines” that spyware distributors and spammers can use to infiltrate systems worldwide, he said.

The exploit code is usually encrypted and uses a range of morphing techniques to evade detection by security software. It is designed to use various vulnerabilities to try and infect a target system, Ollmann said.

“All you’ve got to do is just subscribe to them on a monthly basis,” Ollmann said.

One such site was discovered by Don Jackson, a security researcher at SecureWorks Inc., an Atlanta-based managed security service provider. While investigating a Trojan named Gozi recently, Jackson discovered that it was designed to steal data from encrypted SSL streams and send it to a server based in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Trojan took advantage of a vulnerability in the iFrame tags of Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer and had apparently been planted on several hosted Web sites, community forums, social networking sites and sites belonging to small businesses.

The server to which the stolen information was sent held more than 10,000 records containing confidential information belonging to about 5,200 home users. It was maintained by a group called 76Service and contained server-side code for stealing data from systems, Jackson said.

The front end allowed subscribers to log in to individual accounts, view indexed data and get results from queries based on certain fields such as IP addresses and URLs. The currency unit used on the site was WMZ, a WebMoney unit roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar, Jackson said. A customer query returning three passwords for a small retailer might cost 100 WMZ, while a query for 10 passwords for an international bank might fetch 2,500 WMZ or more. The actual Gozi Trojan code itself appears to have been purchased by 76Service from a Russian hacking group called the HangUp Team. Such code typically costs about US$1,000 to US$2,000, Jackson said.

While some industry observers say the Internet provides anonymity to these organized cyber gangs, one Canadian security expert believes cooperation among authorities and Internet service providers can help unmask these hackers.

“[These hackers are] not anonymous; a lot of users tend to think [they are], but it’s much less so these days because cooperation with ISPs has come a long way in the last decade,” said Francis Ho, an executive committee member at Toronto-based Federation of Security Professionals. This is particularly true in Canada and the U.S. where ISPs have been cooperative with local and federal authorities in tracking down Internet criminals, he added.

with files from Mari-Len De Guzman


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