E-mail viruses getting smarter

March 8, 2008 – 3:33 PM

Computer viruses spread by e-mail are growing more sophisticated as virus writers and spammers are thought to be joining forces in an effort to make smarter bugs, a computer security group said Tuesday.

New York-based MessageLabs, which scans client e-mails for viruses to block, said it picked apart some 5.6 billion e-mails from January to June this year and found one in 12 contained some sort of virus that penetrated firewalls meant to block them.

MessageLabs typically scans about 50 million customer e-mails daily, and its customers include major government and corporate entities from the British government to The Bank Of New York and Japanese technology giant Fujitsu.

While the number of e-mails sent globally was not covered by the study, the problem of computer viruses can be massive. They can overload computers with messages, automatically reboot systems and sometimes disable them.

In August last year, the MSBlast worm spread rapidly around the world, infecting some 230,000 to 300,000 computers, based on estimates from sources ranging from U.S.-based Symantec to Moscow’s Kaspersky Labs.

Soon after, a worm called Sobig.F raced around the globe crashing e-mail networks. At that time, America Online said it blocked 23.2 million copies of Sobig.F, and MessageLabs said about one in 17 e-mails were infected by the virus.

A separate MessageLabs study in the first six months of 2003 showed that one in 208 e-mails contained a virus, up from one in 392 for the first six months of 2002.

MessageLabs said it believes the biggest e-mail security threat during the first half of 2004 was closer cooperation between virus writers and spammers, writers of unsolicited messages that often advertise products or get people to spend money.

The reason the two groups are getting together is profit, MessageLabs has learned through monitoring chat rooms to infiltrate the secretive world of virus writers and spammers.

With the recent proliferation of software blocking spam, the spammers are paying virus writers to create viruses that attach to their e-mails and circumvent the spam blockers.

MessageLabs said its employees who monitor chat rooms have learned that virus writers and spam writers are increasingly exchanging messages about joining ranks.

“There is little or no monetary profit to be gained from simply distributing viruses, but when you combine the capabilities of a virus and the profit that can be earned from spam, suddenly you have an altogether more materialistic proposition,” MessageLabs said in its report.

MessageLabs said its belief about the increasing cooperation was based both on its research through its clients and on industry research.


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