Scammers embrace McAfee fiasco to pitch fake AV

Poison search results to put links that lead to scareware in front of frustrated users

Scammers have quickly piggybacked onto news of a buggy McAfee antivirus update that clobbered thousands of computers, security researchers said today.

Early Wednesday, McAfee released a flawed signature update that wrongly tagged a crucial system file in Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) as malware. After the software quarantined the "svchost.exe" file, thousands of PCs, most of them in businesses, crashed and rebooted repeatedly.

Firms are still dealing with the aftermath, with some companies forced to manually reconfigure hundreds or even thousands of systems.

The debacle made news not just in the technical press, but in more mainstream outlets, including the New York Times and USA Today.

And news is scammers' bread and butter. Using their now-traditional technique of poisoning results at majorsearch engines like Google and Bing, "scareware" makers have pushed links touting fake antivirus software to at or near the top of the results lists, said Graham Closely, senior technology consultant with Sophos.

The links appear when users type search terms such as "McAfee update" and "McAfee 5958," the latter a reference to the faulty update's designation, added Panda Security in a post to its company blog today.

"If you click on a dangerous link like this, then you risk the chance of your computer being hit by a fake anti-virus attack, which may attempt to con you out of your credit card details or trick you into install[ing] malicious code onto your computer," said Cluley in a post to his blog.

McAfee owned up to the problem -- Barry McPherson, executive vice president of support, said "No excuses" late Wednesday -- and the company has posted guides to help businesses and consumers restore incapacitated PCs. On Wednesday afternoon, McAfee issued a replacement update for the faulty signature file.

That did little to soothe some frustrated users. "Today has been a nightmare. Maybe time to look at a new virus solutions once the license expires," said a user identified as "alomas" on a McAfee corporate support forum thread that has nearly 150 messages. "Could not handle another day like this and confidence in McAfee at an all time low."

Fake security software is a very lucrative and thus popular part of the cybercrime ecology. According to a 2008 report, crooks can make as much as $5 million annually in the practice. McAfee rival Symantec, meanwhile, recently reported that the second-most-downloaded piece of malware during 2009 was the "FakeAV" Trojan horse, which displays false alerts and lowers security settings on compromised PCs. The phony alerts try to dupe users into heading to a site where they can download the sham software.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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