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What are hackers up to these days?

Jen A. Miller | May 24, 2016
The short answer: They’re targeting sites in North America, where they’re planting malware in ad networks and launching dating site spam.

The long answer is more complex, but security vendor Trustwave offered some insights in its 2016 Trustwave Global Security Report, which was released last month.

"Criminals are getting a lot savvier," says Karl Sigler, Trustwave's threat intelligence manager. "We're seeing their tactics changing a little bit."

New bad news

In the study, Trustwave found that compromises affecting corporate and internal networks hit 40 percent in 2015, up from 18 percent from the year before.

"Criminals are discovering that if they can get themselves embedded into a corporate network, there's a wealth of monetizable data in those networks," says Sigler. This could also be a result of what he calls a "drastic decline" in the rate of point-of-sale breaches, which dropped by 18 percentage points from 2014 to 2015, according to the study. "Criminals don't go away. They just shift targets," he says.

The study also found a major jump in the use of malvertising. For example, 90 percent of traffic to the RIG exploit kit, which was the third most popular kit in 2015, came from malicious advertisements.

"Criminals have really embedded themselves in the advertising network," Sigler says. "It's an economical way to push their exploits to a much larger audience than they would through a compromised website or by sending social engineering emails out to a lot of people."

Two other reasons for the spread of malware in advertising include the complexity of ad networks and a lack of accountability, says Jonathan Voris, an assistant professor of computer science at the New York Institute of Technology. When a user visits an ad-sponsored site, "at least a dozen different websites are contacted in order to serve up that advertising content," he says. That creates a lot of points of entry for hackers, who also exploit the fact that no one is sure who should take responsibility for malware being put on a user's computer: Is it the website owner? The ad network? The computer owner? "The person who is running the website has to make an awfully large effort to vet all those content providers who are going to generate those ads," he says. "Some websites might say it's not their responsibility."

Spam trends

On the spam front, the volume of unwanted email touting pharmaceutical products is down, though it’s still the most prevalent type of spam. In 2014, ads pushing pills accounted for almost three-quarters of all spam messages, according to last year's Trustwave report. In 2015, that figure dropped to 39 percent. That’s a significant drop, but Trustwave’s data indicates that spam related to online dating sites and adult products is filling the void. Email dealing with those topics accounted for 30 percent of all spam in 2015, up from 6 percent in 2014.


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