Feds tout malware as Australia's biggest cyber threat

The director of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre believes that the diversity of malware and its abilities to circumvent security products, is the greatest threat on the local cyber crime landscape.

The AHTCC investigates and combats cyber crime through co-ordination between Australian law enforcement, federal government, industry bodies and other organisations, as well as international agencies such as the Virtual Global Taskforce. It is hosted in Canberra by the Australian Federal Police.

AHTCC director, James McCormack, said that over the past decade cyber crime has evolved from an era when hackers conducted devious activities for glory rather than malevolent reasons, to one where online crime is professional and almost exclusively motivated by financial gain.

This change in landscape has seen cyber crime rise to a podium place in the competition for the most significant criminal threat facing the nation.

"I can tell you right now that (AFP) Commissioner [Mick] Keelty and all the other commissioners around Australia view cyber crime as one of their highest priorities. Obviously terrorism is high at the top of the list, but cyber crime is one of those emerging crime types that has certainly caught their eye and they are devoting significant resources to it. Not just for the AFP -- that is across the board," McCormack told Computerworld.

"The thing that keeps me awake at night is the increasing range and capabilities of malicious software. I think malware is our greatest threat and I think it's very important for businesses and Australian consumers to take the appropriate steps to protect themselves."

McCormack said that on the whole Australians tend to be very good at keeping anti-virus programs up to date, installing legitimate copies of software and ensuring operating systems have the most up-to-date patches, more so than our neighbouring counterparts in Asia.

But he feels there is much work to be done in educating the public about identifying threats, judging the trustworthiness of emails - particularly those that purport to come from a bank, and following links to unknown Web sites from unsolicited sources.

"The scams that concern me the most are really the phishing ones. Surprisingly, there are still a lot of people that click on links to phishing sites, the sophistication of the emails they are getting these days have improved over the past couple of years - fewer spelling mistakes and much more polished," he said.

In February, an Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce spokesperson told Computerworld that it estimated Australians were being duped out of $700 million in phishing and other advanced fee frauds each year.

"This is a big industry. Conservative figures suggest about US$105 billion a year across the world in online crime, and these are conservative figures," McCormack said.

"The online criminals -- I hesitate to use the word gang, but there are groupings of people -- are actually devoting a lot of time, resources and effort looking at what the Internet will look like in the future and how they can design their products, for want of a better word, to continue to exploit vulnerabilities.

"One of the [security software] vendors identified 700,000 new malware variants in the last year alone. Threats are growing at an astronomical rate, often because we're seeing automation brought into the process of writing malicious software. We're also seeing the people that are doing this adopt a much cleverer approach."

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McCormack believes phishing scams are so successful because of the blanket policy criminals adopt when looking for victims. They don't try and scam a single person, business or organisation out of one significant lump sum, but rather target a high volume of low dollar victims.

"I think the figure is about 90 billion emails per day. A huge percentage of those are spam and a significant proportion of that spam contains links to malicious software. When you're putting that much volume of traffic out you only need .001 percent to actually expose themselves and lose a small amount of money [each], and the criminals get a vast sum."

In terms of origins of threats, McCormack said Australia does not boast many cyber criminals, largely due to effective cyber crime laws, co-operation between federal, state and territorial law enforcement agencies, and a keenness to prosecute these types of crimes.

What the AHTCC does see in terms of Australian-based cyber criminals is a lot of lower level people who get involved in phishing and other scams, such as muling, to make a quick buck (see picture attached).

"They understand what they are doing is illegal - if you answer a job advert on the Internet which indicates that you can make $2000 a week just for two hours work, and you start transferring funds to some guy in Eastern Europe and getting $500 commission, then there must be something not right about it," McCormack said.

While the AHTCC sees these kinds of opportunistic local cyber criminals as just one small cog in the wheel, it is viewed as criminal activity nonetheless and will be prosecuted.

"There was a case just recently in Brisbane where the lady involved received a 15 month sentence."

In McCormack's view, the jewel in the AHTCC's crown is the Joint Banking and Finance Sector Investigation Team: a collection of representatives from law enforcement, major banks and financial services, and smaller financial institutions represented through Abacus, working close together to combat cyber crime in the financial sphere.

"That team has a vast and enormous number of successes every single day, and I recently had them start to record this visibly. As they walk out each night there is a big whiteboard near the door that lists all the phishing sites they've taken down, the number of interviews conducted with people involved in muling scams, and the number of operational activities they have running at any one time.

"It's just a visible reminder each time they walk out the door that 'hey, we've kicked some goals today', and we can only do that via the cooperation with industry and our other counterparts in states and territories."

For more information on how not to be become a victim of cyber crime, visit the AHTCC or ScamWatch Web sites.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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