Web attacks spike; e-mail attacks down

Web attacks surged to an all-time high in the first quarter of this year, with no signs of abating, according to a recent study by anti-virus software maker Sophos.

For the first three months of 2008, Sophos identified about 15,000 newly infected Web pages daily. To put that figure in perspective, consider this: In 2007, Sophos discovered and blocked an infected Web page about once every 14 seconds; this year, according to the company, it's doing so about once every five seconds.

According to Sophos, the United States is host to the largest number of malware-infected Web sites. Couple this with another trend'namely, that almost 80 percent of "poisoned sites" are, in fact, legitimate Web sites that have been hacked to host malware'and you have a greater-than-even chance that users could stumble unsuspectingly into a malware-infected trap.

"The U.S. has experienced unprecedented growth in this area, hosting almost half of all infected websites. The country has almost doubled its contribution to the chart compared to 2007, when it was responsible for hosting less than a quarter of compromised Web sites," Sophos' report reads. "China, which in 2007 was responsible for hosting more than half of the infected Web sites on the web, has returned to its 2005 standing, playing host to just a third of infected Web sites."

If Web attacks are on the rise, the prevalence of malware-infected e-mail seems to be declining. According to Sophos' estimates, just .04 percent of all e-mail sent during the first quarter of 2008 was infected, compared with .11 percent during the first quarter of last year.

One reason for this decline is a tactical shift on the part of cybercriminals, according to Sophos. "Rather than incorporating malware into the e-mail in the form of an attachment, cybercriminals are using unsolicited e-mail to provide links to compromised Web sites," Sophos officials say. "Ironically, there is still a common belief that unsolicited e-mail, or spam, is a non-threat. With virtually all of it unwanted, and a large proportion linking to infected Web sites, organizations would be wise to address this problem before they become a victim."

The frequency of e-mail-infected malware might be declining, but the same can't be said for the prevalence of spam. According to Sophos, 92.3 percent of all first quarter e-mail traffic was spam. Web spamming is also on the rise: "Sophos finds a new spam-related Web page on average every 3 seconds'[or] 23,300 each day. This calculation includes pages registered on 'freeweb' sites, such as Blogspot, Geocities, etc.," the Sophos report indicates.

Sophos and other experts link the rise in Web-mail spam to the circumvention of CAPTCHA (i.e., reverse-Turing-Test) techniques. CAPTCHA is an acronym first coined by computer scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University to describe a challenge/response test which allows a machine to determine that a user is human.

This article was originally published April 29 at RedmondMag.com, an affilate Web site of GCN.com. RedmondMag.com and GCN.com are 1105 Media Inc. properties. Stephen Swoyer is a contributing editor for several 1105 Media sites. You can contact Stephen about this at swoyerse@yahoo.com.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer based in Nashville, Tenn., who writes about business intelligence and data warehousing for TDWI.org, an 1105 Media sister site.

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