How to protect yourself from malware

Hackers or crackers or online criminals—whatever you call them—are working every minute of every day creating new malware that scam users more effectively. But most of these threats are new arrangements of old tunes. So with the right protection and a little savvy, you can avoid just about every digital threat you face.

(Note: This article is for busy Internet users who are looking for information on how to protect their PCs and their families from malware. For more about the technical side of malware, read Alia’s excellent series “A quick & dirty guide to malware”.)

What is the threat?

The first malware typically vandalized PCs and destroyed files. But since the early 2000s, the primary motive for malware creation has been profit. Online criminals are after your banking information or your credit card numbers or your computer’s processing power. In the worst case scenario, they may even be after private information that could be used to extort you or harm your business. And these sorts of attacks generally have both financial and psychological costs.

The true costs of malware can include your data, your content, your time, your effort and your heartache.

Want a few examples of malware mayhem? Spyware tracks you for advertising purposes and slows down your computer doing so. Keyloggers monitors your every keystroke in an effort to steal your credit card information. Scareware imitates anti-virus software in an attempt to extort a quick payment from you. Ransomware takes your files and demand a ransom in return. Rootkits can turn you PC into a zombie computer and use it to send out email spam or to host illegal materials or to join in attacks on websites. There’s even a malware that exists just to create a fake login page for your bank’s website to steal your account information.

How does malware end up on your PC?

Generally you end up with malware because you installed it. And whether you installed it or not, malware can only work if the program runs without being shut down or deleted.

Malware works like most scams — it requires some conscious or unconscious help from its victims. Thus online criminals have to know more than computer coding. They have to know what mistakes users are likely to make so they trick people who have probably NEVER fallen for a scam in their real lives. And the best criminals can convince even cautious users to make one wrong click.

How do you end up downloading and installing malware? Sometimes malware gets packaged in with more legitimate software. Sometimes simply clicking on a fake error message can trigger a drive-by malware download. And you’re certainly aware of the classic method of disguising malware in an email attachment.

You put yourself at risk when you’re downloading from a disreputable source or a peer-to-peer network of strangers. Seeking out “free” stuff on the Internet can cost you time and money. And this is especially true if you’re browsing and downloading without proper protection.

How to protect yourself from malware

1. Make sure your PC is updated and secure
I hope you’re reading this sitting down because I have quite shocking news for you: the software on your PC isn’t perfect. It may contain exploits or security holes that make it possible for your machine to be infected easily. Software companies know their programs are not perfect. That’s why they release updates. Microsoft, Apple and Adobe all release dozens of updates every year. You need to make sure you have these updates on your applications running or you’re increasing your risk of infection. Our free Health Check software is a quick and easy way to make sure your PC is protected.

Of course, we also recommend always running updated Internet security that includes anti-virus, spyware and firewall. Browsing Protection is another layer of security that can keep you from clicking on the wrong links. If you don’t have Browsing Protection, you can use ours. Check any link for free.

2. Be very skeptical of random pop-up windows, error messages and attachments
Modern browsers have reduced the burden of pop-up windows. But they do still exist. Most pop-ups are far more annoying than harmful. But you might think of pop-ups like broken windows into a neighborhood you were walking through at night. It’s a sign that you should be on guard.

Avoid clicking on any pop-ups that imitate your Windows error messages or error messages that come up when you try to close out of a page. (Force quit out of the program, if necessary.) If any software begins to install itself, close out immediately and run a scan of your Internet security software. You can also use our Online Scanner for free.

Avoid opening attachments at all unless you were expecting them and they come from a source you trust. If you can’t verify the source or feel anxious about a particular attachment yet have to open it, you can download it to your hard drive and have your updated Internet security scan the file before you open it.

3. Remove spam from your life
If you get a piece of spam, let your mail software know. Identify it as spam. You could also unsubscribe but unsubscribe link have been used on rare occasions to trigger a malware attack. Better to let your software handle it. If you have a friend on Facebook who spreads spam or bad apps, let them know. And if they continue spreading spam, unfriend them. You are responsible for your social network. Refuse to associate with those people who are not responsible for theirs.

4. Think thrice before installing any new software
Installing software should never be an impulse decision. Some people say think twice before downloading any software from a source you do not trust 100%. I say think three time.

At the very least, Google the name of a product you want to install. If you’re at all uncertain about whether to click download, consult with a tech savvier friend or your company’s IT guy.

When you install software, you could invite in a nasty predator that won’t leave until it’s done some serious damage. So think about installing software with a bit of the same sort of caution you use when deciding to let someone into your home.

5. Behave online as you would in real life
There’s an old saying in my family: “Don’t go licking the floors of a hospital.” What it means is: “Use your common sense.” You have a natural sensor in your brain that tells you when something feels dicey or unsafe. Trust your gut.

With the right software running and a willingness to step back when you feel uncertainty, you keep your PC and your life malware free.

Cheers,
Jason

CC image by Anonymous9000

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Could the Sony and Hacking Team hacks have been detected sooner?

Hacks in the Headlines: Two Huge Breaches That Could Have Been Detected

The Sony hack of late 2014 sent shock waves through Hollywood that rippled out into the rest of the world for months. The ironic hack of the dubious surveillance software company Hacking Team last summer showed no one is immune to a data breach - not even a company that specializes in breaking into systems. After a big hack, some of the first questions asked are how the attacker got in, and whether it could have been prevented. But today we're asking a different question: whether, once the attacker was already in the network, the breach could have been detected. And stopped. Here's why: Advanced attacks like the ones that hit Sony and Hacking Team are carried out by highly skilled attackers who specifically target a certain organization. Preventive measures block the great majority of threats out there, but advanced attackers know how to get around a company's defenses. The better preventive security a company has in place, the harder it will be to get in…but the most highly skilled, highly motivated attackers will still find a way in somehow. That's where detection comes in. Thinking like an attacker If an attacker does get through a company's defensive walls, it's critical to be able detect their presence as early as possible, to limit the damage they can do. There has been no official confirmation of when Sony's actual breach first took place, but some reports say the company had been breached for a year before the attackers froze up Sony's systems and began leaking volumes of juicy info about the studio's inner workings. That's a long time for someone to be roaming around in a network, harvesting data. So how does one detect an attacker inside a network? By thinking like an attacker. And thinking like an attacker requires having a thorough knowledge of how attackers work, to be able to spot their telltale traces and distinguish them from legitimate users. Advanced or APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks differ depending on the situation and the goals of the attacker, but in general their attacks tend to follow a pattern. Once they've chosen a target company and performed reconnaissance to find out more about the company and how to best compromise it, their attacks generally cover the following phases: 1. Gain a foothold. The first step is to infect a machine within the organization. This is typically done by exploiting software vulnerabilities on servers or endpoints, or by using social engineering tactics such as phishing, spear-phishing, watering holes, or man-in-the-middle attacks. 2. Achieve persistence. The initial step must also perform some action that lets the attacker access the system later at will. This means a persistent component that creates a backdoor the attacker can re-enter through later. 3. Perform network reconnaissance. Gather information about the initial compromised system and the whole network to figure out where and how to advance in the network. 4. Lateral movement. Gain access to further systems as needed, depending on what the goal of the attack is. Steps 2-4 are then repeated as needed to gain access to the target data or system. 5. Collect target data. Identify and collect files, credentials, emails, and other forms of intercepted communications. 6. Exfiltrate target data. Copy data to the attackers via network. Steps 5 and 6 can also happen in small increments over time. In some cases these steps are augmented with sabotaging data or systems. 7. Cover tracks. Evidence of what was done and how it was done is easily erased by deleting and modifying logs and file access times. This can happen throughout the attack, not just at the end. For each phase, there are various tactics, techniques and procedures attackers use to accomplish the task as covertly as possible. Combined with an awareness and visibility of what is happening throughout the network, knowledge of these tools and techniques is what will enable companies to detect attackers in their networks and stop them in their tracks. Following the signs Sony may have been breached for a year, but signs of the attack were there all along. Perhaps these signs just weren't being watched for - or perhaps they were missed. The attackers tried to cover their tracks (step 7) with two specific tools that forged logs and file access and creation times - tools that could have been detected as being suspicious. These tools were used throughout the attack, not just at the end, so detection would have happened well before all the damage was done, saving Sony and its executives much embarrassment, difficult PR, lost productivity, and untold millions of dollars. In the case of Hacking Team, the hacker known as Phineas Fisher used a network scanner called nmap, a common network scanning tool, to gather information about the organization’s internal network and figure out how to advance the attack (step 3). Nmap activity on a company internal network should be flagged as a suspicious activity. For moving inside the network, step 4, he used methods based on the built-in Windows management framework, PowerShell, and the well-known tool psexec from SysInternals. These techniques could also potentially have been picked up on from the way they were used that would differ from a legitimate user. These are just a few examples of how a knowledge of how attackers work can be used to detect and stop them. In practice, F-Secure does this with a new service we've just launched called Rapid Detection Service. The service uses a combination of human and machine intelligence to monitor what's going on inside a company network and detect suspicious behavior. Our promise is that once we've detected a breach, we'll alert the company within 30 minutes. They'll find out about it first from us, not from the headlines. One F-Secure analyst sums it up nicely: "The goal is to make it impossible for an attacker to wiggle his way from an initial breach to his eventual goal." After all, breaches do happen. The next step, then, is to be prepared.   Photo: Getty Images

May 31, 2016
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5588953445_51dcf922aa_o_crop

Why are Android bugs so serious?

Yet another big vulnerability in the headlines. The Metaphor hack was discovered by Israel-based NorthBit and can be used to take control over almost any Android device. The vulnerability can be exploited from video files that people encounter when surfing the web. It affects all versions of Android except version 6, which is the latest major version also known as Marshmallow. But why is this such a big deal? Severe vulnerabilities are found all the time and we receive updates and patches to fix them. A fast update process is as a matter of fact a cyber security cornerstone. What makes this issue severe is that it affects Android, which to a large extent lack this cornerstone. Android devices are usually not upgraded to new major versions. Google is patching vulnerabilities, but these patches’ path to the devices is long and winding. Different vendors’ practices for patching varies a lot, and many devices will never receive any. This is really a big issue as Android’s smartphone market share is about 85% and growing! How is this possible? This underlines one of the fundamental differences between the Android and iOS ecosystems. Apple’s products are planned more like the computers we are used to. They are investments and will be maintained after purchase. iOS devices receive updates, and even major system upgrades, automatically and free of charge. And most users do install them. Great for the security. Android is a different cup of tea. These devices are mostly aimed at a cheaper market segment. They are built as consumables that will be replaced quite frequently. This is no doubt a reasonable and cost-saving strategy for the vendors. They can focus on making software work on the currently shipping devices and forget about legacy models. It helps keeping the price-point down. This leads to a situation where only 2,3% of the Android users are running Marshmallow, even half a year after release. The contrast against iOS is huge. iOS 9 has been on the market about the same time and already covers 79% of the user base. Apple reported a 50% coverage just five days after release! The Android strategy backfires when bugs like Metaphor are discovered. A swift and compete patch roll-out is the only viable response, but this is not available to all. This leaves many users with two bad options, to replace the phone or to take a risk and keep using the old one. Not good. One could think that this model is disappearing as we all grow more and more aware of the cyber threats. Nope, development actually goes in the opposite direction. Small connected devices, IoT-devices, are slowly creeping into our homes and lives. And the maintenance model for these is pretty much the same as for Android. They are cheap. They are not expected to last long, and the technology is developing so fast that you would be likely to replace them anyway even if they were built to last. And on top of that, their vendors are usually more experienced in developing hardware than software. All that together makes the IoT-revolution pretty scary. Even if IoT-hacking isn’t one of the ordinary citizen’s main concerns yet. So let’s once again repeat the tree fundamental commands for being secure on-line. Use common sense, keep your device patched and use a suitable security product. If you have a system that provides regular patches and updates, keep in mind that it is a valuable service that helps keeping you safe. But it is also worth pointing out that nothing as black and white. There are unfortunately also problematic update scenarios.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by etnyk under CC

March 18, 2016
BY 
going back in time with macro malware

Hack to the Future: The Return of Macro Malware

We who write stuff in the security industry are used to dashing off sentences like, “Online attacks are becoming more and more advanced” or “Malware is continually evolving in sophistication.” But in the past year we experienced a surprising throwback to one type of malware from an earlier era. Malware that uses a rather old technique, but it’s causing plenty of trouble nonetheless. It kinda feels like we've gone back in time. I’m talking about macro malware. It’s something we hadn’t seen prominently since the early 2000’s. And now, as touched on in our just released Threat Report covering the 2015 threat landscape, it has reared its head again. What is macro malware? Macro malware takes advantage of the macro feature in Office documents to execute commands. And macros are simply shortcuts the user can create for repeated tasks. For example, let’s say you are creating a document in Word and you find yourself repeatedly editing text to be red with a yellow highlight, 16 point, italic and right aligned. To save time, you can create a macro of your commands and then whenever you need that kind of style, simply run the macro. A little history Macro malware was common back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The first macro malware, Concept, was discovered in 1995, although it was basically harmless, simply displaying a dialogue box. In 1999, one of the most notorious macro malware, Melissa, was discovered. Melissa emailed itself to 50 addresses in the user’s address book, spreading to 20% of the world’s computers. But macro malware wouldn’t last long. When Microsoft released Word 2003, the default security settings were changed to stop macros from automatically running when a document opened. This made it more difficult to infect a computer through macros and attackers mostly dropped them to focus on other methods. So what happened? Why is it back again? The re-emergence, according to Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor in F-Secure Labs, may be correlated with the decline of exploitable vulnerabilities due to security improvements in today’s common software applications like Microsoft Office. Exploits have been one of the most common ways to infect machines in recent years, but with fewer software holes to exploit, malware authors seem to be reverting to other tricks. How it’s successful Today’s macro malware attempts to get around Microsoft’s default settings with a simple trick. When a document is opened, the information inside doesn’t appear properly to the viewer – for example, sometimes the document looks like scrambled gobbledygook. Text in the document claims that macros, or content, must be enabled for proper viewing. Here’s one example: Curiosity? Just plain unaware? Whatever the reason, as Sean says, the malware’s reappearance has been successful because “People click.” Once macros have been enabled, the malicious macro code is executed – which then downloads the payload. Macro malware is used by crypto-ransomware families like Cryptowall and the newest threat Locky. These families encrypt the data on a computer and then demand payment to unencrypt it. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible it was macro malware that was used in the holding of a Hollywood hospital for ransom last month. The banking Trojan Dridex, which allows attackers to steal banking credentials and other personal info from infected machines, also uses the technique. How to avoid it Fortunately, if you use security from F-Secure, you’re protected from these threats. But aside from that, the old advice still holds: Be wary of email attachments from senders you don’t know. And take care not to enable macros on documents you’ve received from sources you’re not 100% sure of.   "Back to the Future" banner image courtesy of Garry Knight, flickr.com

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