End users were far less likely to receive malware programs in their in-boxes and far more likely to get attacked as they visited legitimate Web sites over the first six months of 2007, as threats continue to shift from widespread campaigns to distribution via targeted outlets, according to researchers at Symantec.
Whereas attackers have traditionally utilized far-ranging schemes that sought to find their way onto as many desktops as possible through ubiquitous communications channels including e-mail and IM, hackers and cyber-thieves are rapidly transitioning to socially-driven threats that seek to use news events or popular topics to reel-in their victims online.
While the shift has been happening for the last several years, authors of Symantec's latest Internet Security Threat Report, published on Monday, said that the move was more evident during the first six months of 2007 than ever before.
"I think this truly represents a big change, we've started to see attacks shifting away from going after the end users to the use of targeted outlets as the primary infection point," said Dean Turner, senior manager of Symantec's Security Response Team and executive editor of the report, which is published twice annually.
"Almost all the malware code we're seeing is on the Web, and much of it on trusted sites, so the victims are coming to the bad guys versus the old days where it mostly went the other way around," he said.
Overall, Symantec observed some 212,101 new malware attacks during the first half of 2007, a dramatic 185 percent increase over the second half of 2006. Of those threats, the company said that Trojan viruses accounted for 73 percent of the top 50 malicious code samples, a 60 percent increase compared to the previous six months.
A growing number of attackers are also utilizing widely-available and increasingly-sophisticated malware-authoring toolkits such as MPack -- which has been used to assail large numbers of financial services companies and their customers, and is believed to be supported by Russian cyber-thieves -- to stay on top of the latest browser vulnerabilities and find new legions of victims, Turner said.
The professionalism of the toolkits is making for a subsequent increase in the complexity of common attacks and making it harder for webmasters to keep their sites from being hijacked, according to the expert. The expense of the code is also heading downward, with MPack widely-sold on underground markets for roughly US$1,000, the company said.
Turner said that browser plug-ins remain a popular format for sneaking code onto people's PCs, with ActiveX-based plug-ins representing the lion's share of the infected applications being doled out to unsuspecting Internet users. Over the first half of 2007, Symantec documented 237 vulnerabilities in Web browser plug-ins, a significant gain over the 74 it discovered during in the second half of 2006, and the 34 it unearthed in the first half of 2006.
Some 89 percent of all the nefarious plug-ins observed by Symantec over the first two quarters of 2007 involved ActiveX exploits. By comparison, ActiveX threats accounted for only 58 percent of plug-in vulnerabilities in the second half of 2006.