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U.S. Remains Dirtiest Spammer, But China Makes More Malware

Sophos said U.S.-based computers were responsible for sending 22% of the year's spam, with China second at 15.9% and South Korea third at 7.4%.

The United States again led the world as a spam producing, malware hosting country last year, a security vendor said Monday, but China took top dishonor as the nation that generated the most malicious code in 2006.

Sophos, which published its annual threat roundup Monday, said U.S.-based computers were responsible for sending 22% of the year's spam, with China second at 15.9%, and South Korea third at 7.4%. Nine out of every 10 spam messages sent worldwide were sent from so-called "zombies," computers that were hijacked and sent messages without their owners' knowledge.

"On a per-capita basis, the U.S. has a disproportionate number of PCs, and a disproportionate number of them are unprotected," says Ron O'Brien, senior security analyst for Sophos. The machines make an inviting target for spammers, who collect the purloined PCs in botnets that they then use for their spam runs.

Other nations have made better progress than the United States in blocking spammers, according to Sophos. South Korea, for instance, once the number-two spamming country, has slipped to third after successful efforts were waged to educate users to secure their machines, while Canada has fallen from the fifth spot in 2005 to 17th in 2006, thanks to authorities' work in pushing ISPs to separate compromised systems from their networks.

The United States also led the globe in hosting malware, reported Sophos; its servers accounted for 34.2% of all Web-based malicious code. China again held second place, with 31%. "The U.S. market is undeniably a target for online criminal activity. More and more, organizations with U.S.-based Web sites are falling victim to targeted attacks," says O'Brien.

In one important category, however, the United States failed to finish in the top five.

"Thirty percent of the malware written during 2006 came from China," says O'Brien. "Most of it was designed to steal logons and passwords related to online games." When asked why Chinese malware targets online gaming rather than, say, bank accounts, O'Brien says games "seem to have more of a cultural significance than strictly finance. It's like an American hacking MySpace."

Brazil, meanwhile, accounted for 14.2% of the world's malicious code, and consisted mainly of Trojan horses that targeted online banking services. Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine came in third through fifth by producing 4.1%, 3.8%, and 3.4% of all malware studied by Sophos' forensics engineers.

But percentages don't tell the whole story. "Russia was responsible for some of the more malicious malware," says O'Brien. "In Russia, [hacking] is primarily an organized crime activity."

One of the few bright spots in 2006, says O'Brien, was the dramatic decrease in infected e-mail, messages that contain a malicious Trojan, worm, or virus payload. During 2005, one in 44 messages were infected (2.2%); last year, only one in 337 messages carried a malicious payload (0.3%).

But the drop doesn't mean cybercrooks have given up on e-mail, just that they've switched tactics.

"While the number of e-mails containing malware has dropped, we've seen an increase in the number that links to a malicious URL," O'Brien says. "During 2006, as many as 5,000 new URLs a day were hosting malicious software."

Sophos' 2006 report can be downloaded as a PDF file from the company's Web site.

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