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Microsoft, Google Spread Malware Hidden in Holiday Ads

Dec 13, 20104 mins
CybercrimeData and Information SecurityMalware

Microsoft and Google were handing out cheery holiday advertisements laced with poison in the form of drive-by-download malware. Web-based malware has doubled since last year, infecting more than 1.2 million websites last quarter.

According to a third-quarter report from anti-malware firm Dasient, drive-by-downloads and rogue anti-virus schemes are the most popular methods of malware distribution. More than 1.2 million websites were infected with malware last quarter, doubling the malware infection rate of the same quarter a year ago. A great example of this occurred last week when Microsoft and Google were handing out cheery holiday advertisements laced with poison in the form of drive-by-download malware.

Cybercriminals managed to trick the world’s two largest ad serving platforms, DoubleClick and MSN (, into serving malware via drive-by download exploits. According to Armorize Technologies, a security solutions firm, the cybercriminals registered a domain that was one letter off from the legitimate, and then duped the advertising networks into serving their malicious banner ads.

A victim did not need to click on a malicious ad to become infected, since the attackers took advantage of known Windows, Adobe and JavaScript software vulnerabilities to start a drive-by-download process on the victim’s PC. If the download was successful, the attacker had control of the victim’s computer. A message would pop up claiming the computer was filled with malicious software and informing the victim to purchase a license for HDD Plus to fix the problems. Even if a user rebooted, it was too late for the infected PC. Initial detection rates by antivirus vendors were very low, 2 of 42, Armorize wrote in a blog post.

The malicious ads first appeared on Dec. 3 through Google-owned DoubleClick, but ADShufffle kept changing the malware types. On Dec. 10, Armorize confirmed that Microsoft’s Hotmail service was serving malicious ads through Microsoft’s adCenter network, formerly known as MSN adCenter, is the division of MSN responsible for MSN’s advertising services. Known Microsoft sites that were affected with the malvertising attack included, and Target gift card banner ads are an example of the targeted ads that cybercriminals tainted with malware for drive-by-download attacks.

Armorize Chief Technology Officer Wayne Huang warned, “Users visit websites that incorporate banner ads from DoubleClick or, the malicious JavaScript is served from (notice the three f’s), starts a drive-by download process and if successful, HDD Plus and other malware are installed into the victim’s machine, without having the need to trick the victim into doing anything or clicking on anything. Simply visiting the page infects the visitors.”

Huang said, “We reached out to DoubleClick and in less than a few hours time they arranged a meeting with a group of their experts on anti-malvertising and incidence response. We were very surprised and impressed with the speed that DoubleClick acted. We provided details, and DoubleClick said they were already on top of the issue.”

“At the same time, our CEO Caleb Sima received a private email indicating that, together with other big websites, were serving drive-by downloads via malvertising. We started to investigate other ad exchanges, because it was apparent that was able to trick multiple ad exchanges into serving their malicious javascript,” Huang added.

Microsoft did not respond to my questions before the posting of this article.

Since cybercriminals were able to dupe the two largest and well-respected ad serving platforms to accomplish the drive-by downloads, it shows how fast the security ecosystem can be poisoned. Attackers used the Eleonore exploit pack and the Neosploit package on known vulnerabilities on high profile sites. Although the DoubleClick and Microsoft malvertising episode is over, cybercriminals are registering more domains. Armorize suspects that cybercriminals will probably attack other networks as well.

Image Credits: In-Depth Research posted on Armorize Blog

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.