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Zeus botnet exploits unpatched PDF flaw

Researchers spot first widespread attack using Reader, Acrobat design flaw

April 15, 2010 04:01 PM ET

Computerworld - The Zeus botnet is now using an unpatched flaw in Adobe's PDF document format to infect users with malicious code, security researchers said today.

The attacks come less than a week after other experts predicted that hackers would soon exploit the "/Launch" design flaw in PDF documents to install malware on unsuspecting users' computers.

The just-spotted Zeus variant uses a malicious PDF file that embeds the attack code in the document, said Dan Hubbard, CTO of San Diego, Calif.-based security company Websense. When users open the rogue PDF, they're asked to save a PDF file called "Royal_Mail_Delivery_Notice.pdf." That file, however, is actually a Windows executable that when it runs, hijacks the PC.

Zeus is the first major botnet to exploit a PDF's /Launch feature, which is, strictly speaking, not a security vulnerability but actually a by-design function of Adobe's specification. Earlier this month, Belgium researcher Didier Stevens demonstrated how a multistage attack using /Launch could successfully exploit a fully-patched copy of Adobe Reader or Acrobat.

Stevens was not the first to reveal the /Launch vulnerability. In August 2009, a module using the same flaw was added to the open-source Metasploit penetration testing kit, said HD Moore, Metasploit's creator and the chief security officer at Rapid7. "Colin Ames of Attack Research wrote this module as part of his Black Hat USA presentation," said Moore. "Didier's work was independent of what we already had, but uses almost the same method at its core."

Today, Stevens said that the Zeus attack Trojan was actually using the Metasploit module. "From what I can read, the new Zeus PDF actually uses a [Metasploit] Adobe PDF exploit," Stevens said on Twitter, pointing to another description of the new attack by M86 Security of Orange, Calif.

Although Reader and Acrobat display a warning when an executable inside a PDF file is launched, that's not enough to stop users from launching the bogus document, said Websense's Hubbard. "No one is blanket-blocking PDFs at the gateway," he said. "There's so much business value in PDFs, and they're very pervasive." In other words, people trust PDFs, he said -- much more even than some other popular document formats, such as Microsoft Word.

Websense has tracked several thousand Zeus attacks using the embedded malware and /Launch function. "The attacks are still going on," Hubbard said.

While the attack technique may be new, the behind-the-scenes malware and the gang that produces it is standard Zeus fare, Hubbard continued. Zeus is best known for planting identity theft code on victims' PC to steal, for instance, online banking logon usernames and passwords. "The motives aren't any different here," said Hubbard.



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