Sinister new spyware threats emerge

Two revelations this week about new threats related to spyware illustrate how the growing problem of invasive adware and spyware has taken a sinister turn for the worse.

Earlier this week, Sunbelt Software--maker of the CounterSpy spyware remover program--announced that its researchers had discovered a new spyware distribution that installs itself via an Internet Explorer security exploit and is powered by the CoolWebSearch spyware application. The code uses components of the VX2/Transponder spyware application together with an unknown Trojan horse application to steal sensitive financial and personal information and send it to a remote server.

Sunbelt researchers discovered sensitive personal information (including bank account log-ins, credit card information, and billing addresses) belonging to thousands of people stored on a server that is physically located within the United States and that the data thieves were using as a dead drop for their ill-gotten data.

Protected Information?

Alex Eckelberry, Sunbelt's president, explains how the information-stealing scheme works: "It's a little Trojan that sits there and [reads data stored in] the Protected Storage area," he says.

Windows XP uses the Protected Storage area to record sensitive information, such as your browser's AutoComplete histories for URLs, passwords that you instruct IE to save and enter automatically, and data you submit to Web sites on SSL-protected forms. The Trojan horse reads this information--including "search terms, stuff you enter in forms, passwords, everything you enter at a bank," according to Eric Sites, Sunbelt's vice president of research and development--and then forwards the data to the server.

"It's specifically targeting banking information and login accounts to steal your money," Sites says. "They're looking for credit cards and address information, so they can purchase stuff online and [the purchases] can't be blocked."

This is no mere keylogger, Sites adds. "A normal keylogger records anything that is on your computer. This thing attacks anything that you filled out in Web forms, so it has your credit card number, the expiration date, the security code, [and] your address; and it tracks every Web address that [you've entered] a username and password [into]."

"It's totally geared for stealing users' accounts and identity information--everything [the criminals] need to get new credit cards in your name and empty out your bank accounts," Sites adds.

No Fix Available

As yet, there's no fix for the problem because Sunbelt doesn't have a copy of the crooks' Trojan horse. Sunbelt has alerted the FBI, but the field office handling the case did not immediately respond to calls for comment. Eckelberry has personally called some of the victims and their banks to alert them to the theft.

Users of alternative browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, do not store their autocomplete information in the Protected Storage area, and are therefore are immune to this Trojan horse. PCs running Windows XP Service Pack 2 are far less likely to be infected in the first place.

You can use a free tool such as Protected Storage PassView to see what's stored in your Protected Storage area. To clear out the Protected Storage area on your PC, open Internet Explorer, and click Tools, Internet Options. Select the Content tab and then click the AutoComplete button. To eliminate the threat, clear out all the checkboxes, and click the Clear Passwords and Clear Forms buttons.

Eckelberry says it was "serendipitous" that his researchers stumbled upon the server housing the stolen information; it happened while they were tracing a command that he described as a remote callback, sent over the Internet to the infected PC in their lab. "I'm not going to say it was due to anything but investigative curiosity," he says.

Disturbing Discovery

Investigative curiosity also led researchers at Webroot, the anti-spyware firm that makes the SpySweeper utility, to a bizarre discovery of a symbol of hate embedded in a spyware distribution.

Late last week, Webroot's researchers discovered a file compressed into a new variant of the SARS Trojan horse containing the words "ein Volk, ein REICH, ein Fuhrer !!!" beneath a Nazi swastika rendered in ASCII text.

The phrase, quoting Adolf Hitler, translates as "one people, one nation, one leader," and is a popular slogan at Web sites run by white supremacist groups.

The Trojan itself is very dangerous. "Normally, it sits on your machine, resident in memory, and waits for some kind of trigger," says Paul Piccard, Webroot's director of threat research. "If it sees a secure connection starting, it begins logging that connection. It then reports [logged information] to a central location."

The malware file that Webroot discovered had been compressed using the UPX compression method. Accompanying the executable Trojan horse was a text file containing the swastika and the Hitler quote.

"This is the first hate speech we've heard of [in spyware]," Piccard says. "I'd hope this is just an isolated thing. This just came out of nowhere--you don't expect to find it in spyware or adware. It took us by surprise."

"It could be there for the shock value, or it could be [that the Trojan was distributed by] people who really believe in this thing," Piccard said. "It's probably not a joke." In any case, nobody seems to be laughing.

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