Malware spikes, spam plummets, says report

A new report from McAfee says spam is low, but malware is at a record high, and mobile malware is a quickly rising threat.

It has been the busiest quarter on record for malware according to a new report from McAfee. The McAfee Threats Report: First Quarter 2011 claims six million unique malware samples were recorded during the first quarter of 2011, and also points out that spam traffic is down, and mobile malware threats are on the rise.

A McAfee press release points out, "Fake anti-virus software had a very active quarter as well, reaching its highest levels in more than a year, totaling 350,000 unique fake-alert samples in March 2011." That was before the recent scourge of rogue AV scareware on Mac OS X -- which doesn't show any sign of slowing down either.

McAfee also released a white paper today titled Downloading from Mobile App Stores is Risky Business, which focuses on the rise of mobile malware and the security risks of mobile app stores -- specifically alternative, third-party app stores. McAfee says that most Android smartphones and tablets allow "side-loading" of apps, and Android devices are not restricted to just the Google Android Market, so there is no central clearinghouse where Google -- or anyone else -- can check apps to verify they are safe and clean of any malware.

Like the Mac malware issue, the mobile malware concerns also seem ripped from the headlines. Google removed a hundred or so variants of DroidDream back in March, and the Google Android Market was plagued again over the Memorial Day weekend with another 50 or so variants of a threat being called DroidDreamLight.

The takedown of major botnets like Rustock and Coreflood has significantly reduced the volume of spam on the Internet. McAfee reports that spam is down to 2007 levels, but don't get too excited. First of all, "2007 levels" still amounts to 1.5 trillion -- with a "T" -- messages per day, and spam continues to outnumber legitimate e-mail by a ratio of three to one. Second, McAfee cautions that there are a variety of major botnets poised to fill the void.

The focus on rogue AV and mobile malware both illustrate that the ball is primarily in the user's court. While average users don't want to become tech gurus or security experts just to use a PC or smartphone, they have a responsibility to invest at least enough effort to understand the threats that are out there, and the security controls available to prevent them.

Security tools like antimalware, antispam, and personal firewalls should be used where possible. But, applying the existing security and privacy controls available in your PC operating system, Web browser, smartphone, or tablet, combined with a little awareness and common sense are all it takes to avoid most threats.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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