Malware most often spread by visiting malicious Web sites

The top 100 attack programs of this year infected 53 percent of their victims by duping them into downloading something from the Internet.

Computer users are their own worst enemies, a security company warned Monday as it released data that showed software bugs were the source of just 5 percent of the year's infections.

The majority of the attacks carried out by 2008's top 100 pieces of malware were caused by users surfing to malicious sites, then accepting some kind of download, Trend Micro researchers said Monday.

From January 1 to November 25, the top 100 attack programs infected 53 percent of their victims by duping them into downloading something from the Internet. An additional 12 percent of the infections tracked globally were caused by users opening e-mail attachments.

Just 5 percent of the infections were related to an exploit of a software vulnerability, said Trend's analysis.

"This is what we've been seeing all year," said Paul Ferguson, network architect at Trend Micro. "This illustrates that social engineering seems to be playing a larger role than we thought. The problem isn't due to software vulnerabilities in, say, the browser."

Even so, Ferguson wasn't ready to completely dismiss the role that vulnerabilities play. "Because of the sheer overall volume [of malware], we're still talking about some staggering numbers of infections here," he said. Trend Micro and other security vendors have claimed that the number of individual pieces of malware jumped radically in the last year.

The numbers in North America were stacked even more against bugs as the cause of infections. While 63 percent of the infections from the top 100 pieces of malware in the region were caused by downloading something from the Web -- and 3 percent came from opening e-mailed attachments -- just 1.7 percent were related to security vulnerabilities.

"That's something we can't engineer against," said Ferguson. It's also is why Trend Micro and other security vendors have stepped away from a pure anti-virus detection and deletion model, and instead have been bringing in other protective features, such as domain reputation ranking and URL filtering, to their products.

"We still have quite a way to go to get users to educate themselves about risks," said Ferguson. "They still manage to get duped into situations that put them at risk." As proof, Ferguson cited what he called "a new wave" of spam posing as shipping notices from United Parcel and Wal-Mart. The messages have an attached file that they claim is a shipping invoice; when users open it to view or print it, their PCs are infected with a Trojan horse.

"The same [hacker] methodology still works," said Ferguson. "There's still enough low-hanging fruit that they don't even have to try very hard."

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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