3 reasons trustworthy sites can no longer be trusted

Research from Blue Coat Systems claims cybercriminals have shifted their malware-delivery technique from the internet's shadier sites and are hacking the domains we visit every day

Last year, malware became increasingly more common on popular and trusted domains, according to research released this week by security firm Blue Coat Systems. Migration to popular hacked sites with trusted reputations and acceptable-use category ratings was the primary theme for hosting malware delivery infrastructure, researchers claim.

Cybercriminals are hacking trusted sites using stolen access credentials in order to launch attacks that are out in the open, but also veiled from reputation filters and commonly blocked web categories. Here are three reasons researchers say you need to be wary — even on sites you count as safe:

Cybercriminals are patient and willing to put in the workmalvertising (malware advertising) attacks.

Patience delivers payoffs, according to Blue Coat researchers, who note criminals will often wait months to establish legitimate web site infrastructure that will get past reputation-based software filtering. The most common example of this type of exploitation is

"For example, a relatively new ad domain that had existed for approximately six months had been checked several times for malware with clean ratings when it picked a day in early November to selectively target and deliver its cloaked malware payload," the report states. "The next day it was gone."

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In other words, the cybercriminal will wait months and allow their intended malicious site to develop a clean reputation within ad networks. It will allow the site to accept categorizations and pass multiple sweeps for malware in order to seem innocent and gain a trusted position within Web advertising. Once that is accomplished, the site will launch an attack during a particularly vulnerable time, such as the weekend when IT support staff is low, the report said. Roughly 75 percent of phishing attacks now reside on trusted domains that have been hackedPhishing attacks are more common to reputed websites now because criminals know users often have the same credentials for several accounts, including bank accounts and social networking accounts. Chances are if a thief gets a hold of your Facebook log in or banking password, they will be able to use it in other lucrative places.

Cybercriminals use search engines to find domains that use vulnerable-hosting software. These domains are prime hacking candidates, according to the research.

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"Most people associate phishing with SPAM and email attacks; however, social networking has opened a new door for social engineering web-based phishing attacks," the report states. "While classical phishing still exists, cyber crime has moved to social networking attacks to enter the picture as a trusted link between friends, either to deliver malware or to phish for confidential and financial information."

The report also notes criminals are poisoning search results and using search engine optimization (SEO) and link-farming techniques to deliver malware.

"These efforts have shifted from free domains to hacked sites with reputable domains in an effort to be better hidden from defenses," the report said.

Criminals are increasingly targeting the most popular web destinations

Historically, malware has been hidden on sites that would traditionally be blocked by any good filtering software. But the Blue Coat research finds online storage sites, which include photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and open/mixed content sites, such istockphoto and YouTube, saw the fastest growth in malware activity in 2010.

"The number of new online storage sites hosting malware increased 13 percent while the number of new open/mixed content sites hosting malware increased 29 percent. Both of these categories typically fall within acceptable use policies for most companies," the report claims.

The report cites an example of a phishing attack on AOL, which hosts bebo.com with tens of millions of users. The phish established with animation what appeared to be three-step secure Web login sending personal information to the AOL billing center. Once there, the user was presented with an elaborate Web page that collects personal, credit card, banking and login credential information with a warning that AOL would never send an email to collect this information.

The report also cites research from Kaspersky Lab which lists its top 10 places to watch out for phishing predators. The list includes some of the world's most popular web sites, including Paypal, Ebay, HSBC, Facebook, Google, IRS, RAPIDSHARE, Bank of America, UBI (United Bank of India), and Bradesco (one of the four leading banks in Brazil).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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