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Social Networking Sites Feed Phishers

Blame it on a big uptake in social networking sites such as MySpace, where people are willingly keying in all this data about themselves, analysts at MessageLabs suggest.

In what has become an ongoing ritual among computer security vendors, MessageLabs on Wednesday plans to release statistics confirming the continued need for its services.

The volume of spam in February, extrapolated from spam directed at MessageLabs' clients, reached 77.8% of global e-mail traffic, an increase of 2 percentage points from January. One in every 112.9 messages carried malware, an increase of 0.05 percentage points. One in every 203.7 messages carried a phishing attack, a 0.58 percentage point drop.

"Traditionally, spam volume usually takes a dip after the Christmas period," said Mark Sunner, chief security analyst with MessageLabs. "Spam is actually a seasonal phenomenon and this is the first year in which it has continued to grow month after month."

That 77.8% spam volume figure is actually more like 84.5%, but MessageLabs isn't counting billions of SMTP connections that get dropped at the network level before they reach corporate e-mail gateways.

For those tempted to look at the slight decline in phishing as a ray of hope, think again. Sunner attributes the decline to criminals targeting their victims more efficiently. "We're seeing people's personal details -- their names, addresses, ZIP codes, that kind of thing -- used inside the messages that are purporting to come from banks," explained Sunner. "And this is increasingly a symptom of the big uptake in social networking sites such as MySpace, where people are willingly keying in all this data about themselves."

The cyberthieves can easily use this information to craft targeted attacks, Sunner said, which tend to be more successful.

February also saw what Sunner describes as a massive proliferation of the Storm Worm bot. "Interestingly, it wasn't used so much for spamming," he said. "Rather, it was used for denial-of-service attacks against anti-spam companies. ...It's a healthy reminder of the amount of processing power the bad guys have at their disposal, by virtue of their bot nets."

One might also look at the virus rate from February 2006, which was 1 in 40 messages, and conclude that things are looking up. One might think that, but Sunner begs to differ. "Seemingly, that situation on the surface appears to be getting better," he said. "However, the reality behind that [is] we've seen an increase in the efficiency of bots." That means cyberthieves can send the same amount of spam with fewer bots, which means "a smaller blip on the security radar."

What's more, as e-mail threats decline, threats from Web traffic are on the rise. "While e-mail for some people is becoming quite buttoned-down from a security perspective, the Web may be a bit more open," said Sunner. "The bad guys are interested in the path of least resistance and are viewing HTTP protocols as a slightly softer target."

Sunner predicts that for the remainder of the year, spam volume will continue to increase and virus volume will decline as threats move to Web traffic.

If that's not scary enough to prompt a re-evaluation of your security budget, try this: Sunner said that in February 2006, MessageLabs detected attacks targeting specific individuals or corporations at a rate of two per week. Currently, MessageLabs finds one such attack per day. Sunner attributes the upward trend to the recent availability of toolkits that help those with intent but little technical skill direct targeted attacks.

Given that the company scans 190 million messages daily, it also may be worth worrying about being struck by lightning, a risk the National Weather Service rates at 1 in 700,000 annually.

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