Hackers now offer subscription services, support for their malware

But wait, there's more! They'll even guarantee results

Like many just-launched e-commerce sites in the world, this unnamed Web site has a fairly functional, if somewhat rudimentary, home page. A list of options at top of the home page allows visitors to transact business in Russian or in English, offers an FAQ section, spells out the terms and conditions for software use and provides details on payment forms that are supported.

But contact details are, shall we say, sparse. That's because the merchandise being hawked on the site -- no we're not going to say what it is -- isn't exactly legitimate. The site offers malicious code that webmasters with criminal intent can use to infect visitors to their sites with a spyware Trojan horse.

In return for downloading the malware to their sites, Web site owners are promised at least €50 -- about $66 (U.S.) -- every Monday, with the potential for even more for "clean installs" of the malicious code on end user systems. "If your traffic is good, we will change rates for you and make payout with new rates," the site promises.

As organized gangs increasingly turn to cybercrime, sites like the one described are coming to represent the new face of malware development and distribution, according to security researchers. Unlike malicious code writers of the past who tended to distribute their code to a tight group of insiders or in underground newsgroups, the new breed is far more professional about how it hawks, plies and prices its wares, they said.

"We've been seeing a growth of highly organized managed exploit providers in non-extradition countries" over the past year or so, said Gunter Ollmann, director of security strategies at IBM's Internet Security Systems X-Force team. For subscriptions starting as low as $20 per month, such enterprises sell "fully managed exploit engines" that spyware distributors and spammers can use to infiltrate systems worldwide, he said.

The exploit code is usually encrypted and uses a range of morphing techniques to evade detection by security software. It is designed to use various vulnerabilities to try to infect a target system. And many exploit providers simply wait for Microsoft Corp.'s monthly patches, which they then reverse-engineer to develop new exploit code against the disclosed vulnerabilities, Ollmann said.

"All you've got to do is just subscribe to them on a monthly basis," Ollmann said. "The going rate is about $20."

One such site was discovered by Don Jackson, a security researcher at SecureWorks Inc., an Atlanta-based managed security service provider. While investigating a Trojan horse named Gozi recently, Jackson discovered that it was designed to steal data from encrypted Secure Sockets Layer streams and send it to a server in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Trojan horse took advantage of a vulnerability in the iFrame tags of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and had apparently been planted on several hosted Web sites, community forums, social networking sites and sites belonging to small businesses.

The server to which the stolen information was sent to held more than 10,000 records containing confidential information belonging to about 5,200 home users. It was maintained by a group called 76Service and contained server-side code for stealing data from systems -- as well as code for an administrator interface and a customer interface for data mining, Jackson said.

The front end allowed subscribers to log in to individual accounts, view indexed data and get results from queries based on certain fields such as IP addresses and URLs. Each customer-generated query had a price associated with it, Jackson said. The currency unit used on the site was WMZ, a WebMoney unit roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar, Jackson said. A customer query returning three passwords for a small retailer might cost 100 WMZ, while a query for 10 passwords for an international bank might fetch 2,500 WMZ or more. Customers could also choose how they wanted their search results delivered -- as compressed files in e-mails or via FTP.

The actual Gozi code itself appears to have been purchased by 76Service from a Russian hacking group called the HangUp Team. Such code typically costs about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on its sophistication, Jackson said. In addition to the original Trojan horse, the server also hosted two ready-to-deploy variants in a separate staging area. The malicious code included a downloader and a stored password stealer and appeared to be have been made to order for 76Service.

Often, groups such as the HangUp Team also offer a detection monitoring service with which they keep an eye on antivirus vendors to know exactly when signatures are available that can detect their malware. Customers who can afford the service are then told to start releasing variants to evade detection. And customers willing to pay for premium service can get hundreds of such ready-to-use variants bundled with their initial malware code purchase.

"When the first variant is detected by many [antivirus] vendors and data from new infections starts to slow, the person providing the executable code is to spot that and release a new variant," Jackson said.

The actual server hardware that the 76Service used was being managed by another entity called Russian Business Network (RBN), which provided Simple Network Management Protocol-based management and back-up services. "This ensured a level of service [comparable to] a hosting provider," Jackson said.

"We are not talking about kids doing it for kicks over the weekend anymore," said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, chief technology officer at Finjan Inc., a San Jose-based security vendor. "This is real cash, real money that's involved here."

A report released last June by Finjan had already noted a trend toward the commercialization of malicious code, Ben-Itzhak said. That report said that cybercriminals hold "vulnerability auctions" in which they sell information on freshly discovered software flaws to the highest bidder. Another trend spotted was the packaging of exploits into professional, off-the-shelf tool kits that can be used to create malicious Web sites. One such tool kit -- Web Attacker -- cost just $300 from a Russian Web site.

"Just like any other legitimate software company, the Russian Web site even solicited support and update service, and it provided detailed reporting capabilities that could outline the number of people infected per exploit and per operating system," the Finjan report noted. "The level of investment in this particular software indicates that there is substantial demand for such products."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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