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90 percent rise in attacks from legit websites

Cisco study reports alarming growth of malware

Internet-based cyberattacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated as profit-driven criminals continue to hone their approach to stealing data from businesses, employees and consumers, according to a Cisco study.

The 2008 edition of Cisco's Annual Security Report found that the overall number of disclosed vulnerabilities grew by 11.5 percent over 2007. Vulnerabilities in virtualisation technology nearly tripled from 35 to 103 year over year, and attacks are becoming increasingly blended, cross-vector and targeted.

Cisco says its researchers saw a 90 percent growth in threats originating from legitimate domains, nearly double what was seen in 2007. And the volume of malware successfully propagated via email attachments is declining - over the past two years, the number of attachment-based attacks decreased by 50 percent from 2005 and 2006.

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This is at least the fourth study on security released this year by Cisco. Three others, conducted by an external research firm but commissioned by Cisco, assessed insider threats, data leakage and security policies.

According to Cisco, spam accounts for nearly 200 billion messages each day, approximately 90 percent of worldwide email. The United States is the biggest source at 17.2 percent, ahead of Turkey (9.2 percent), Russia (8 percent), Canada (4.7 percent), Brazil (4.1 percent), India (3.5 percent), Poland (3.4 percent), South Korea (3.3 percent), and Germany and the UK (2.9 percent each).

More online attackers are using real email accounts with legitimate webmail providers to send spam, which makes it harder to detect and block, Cisco said. The company estimates that in 2008 spam resulting from email reputation hijacking of the top three web mail providers accounted for less than 1 percent of all spam worldwide but made up 7.6 percent of the providers' mail traffic.

Botnets have become a nexus of criminal activity on the internet, according to Cisco. This year, numerous legitimate websites were infected with iFrames, malicious code injected by botnets that redirect visitors to malware-downloading sites, the company said.

The use of social engineering to entice victims to open a file or click links continues to grow. Cisco expects that in 2009, social engineering techniques will increase in number, vectors and sophistication.

And targeted phishing - spear-phishing - is also expected to become more prevalent as attackers personalise spam and make messages appear more credible, Cisco said.


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