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Android malware steals access to more than 1 million Google accounts

The Gooligan malware targets devices running older versions of Android

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The Gooligan malware leaves positive reviews on apps offered on Google Play.

Credit: Michael Kan

A new Android malware has managed to steal access to more than 1 million Google accounts, and it continues to infect new devices, according to security firm Checkpoint.

“We believe that it is the largest Google account breach to date,” the security firm said in Wednesday blog post.

The malware, called Gooligan, has been preying on devices running older versions of Android, from 4.1 to 5.1, which are still used widely, especially in Asia.

Gooligan masquerades as legitimate-looking Android apps. Checkpoint has found 86 titles, many of which are offered on third-party app stores, that contain the malicious coding.

Once Gooligan is installed, it attempts to root the device, as a way to gain full control. The malware does this by exploiting well-known vulnerabilities in older versions of Android.

“These exploits still plague many devices today because security patches that fix them may not be available for some versions of Android, or the patches were never installed by the user,” Checkpoint said.

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Gooligan will then go on to steal the user's Google authorization tokens, giving the malware access to Gmail, Google Play, and other related services.  

Of the 1 million Google accounts breached, 19 percent were based in the Americas, 9 percent in Europe, while 57 percent were in Asia, according to Checkpoint.

By gaining access to users' Google accounts, the malware is likely attempting to generate revenue for its creators. It does this by installing apps promoted by legitimate advertising networks, and then writing positive reviews for them on Google Play.

“An attacker is paid by the network when one of these apps is installed successfully,” Checkpoint said. 

Security researchers first noticed an earlier version of Gooligan last year, when it appeared in the malicious SnapPea app. It wasn’t until this past summer that the malware reappeared with upgraded processes.

Checkpoint has published a website that lets users check if their Google account was breached by Gooligan.

Security experts also caution users should avoid downloading apps from third-party app stores. This is because these stores often do little to verify that the apps offered are safe for use.

The creators of Gooligan are also spreading the malware by sending SMS text messages to unsuspecting victims containing links to download apps carrying the harmful coding. 

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But Checkpoint said that Google is investigating the matter and revoking authentication tokens that were stolen by the malware.

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