By Lucas van Grinsven, European Technology Correspondent
Spotty teenage hackers who set off global email viruses are being
replaced by serious online crooks whose stealth attacks don't make
headlines but cause more damage, security software makers said on
"Two years ago we stayed up all night, concerned about a great
mass-mailing worm," said Mario Juarez, a product manager at the
security business unit of U.S.-based Microsoft.
"Today, we worry not about a virus that will take every machine down,
but that may attack one machine or a set of machines," he said in an
interview at a Microsoft Tech Ed developers conference.
"What you see more of are a variety of attacks that are carried out to
make money, such as stealing credit card details or threatening a Web
site with a denial of service attack unless it pays them money."
He spoke on the same day a 19-year old German man admitted in court he
had written the Sasser computer worm.
In 2004 the worm knocked out an estimated one million computer systems
among home users and companies by spreading on the ubiquitous
Microsoft Windows operating system.
The U.S. computer giant has since had to close many open back doors in
its software and fix other security holes. After issuing a series of
patches, it claims its software is a lot safer now. More improvements
"Today in Outlook Express, if you click on a link, the virus program
won't execute," said Detlef Eckert, senior director for trustworthy
computing at Microsoft's European organization, referring to
Microsoft's email software.
What helps is that consumers are better informed about viruses and
worms and have become reluctant to open email attachments that may
unleash a harmful computer program.
But the targeted robberies of individuals or small groups of people
are more sophisticated than the mass-mailing worms that created only
Some new viruses now infect Web sites and can then enter personal
computers that are well protected, Eckert said.
"Very often, these customers don't know they are at risk, or even that
they are being attacked," he said.
Other software security experts said there were fewer scares over
mass-mailing worms this year but instead there was a sharp increase in
the number of "Trojans" that can quietly obtain bank account details
"We've seen many more Trojans. The more organized groups are aiming at
targeted victims. And if you're an organized crime group, you don't
want the headlines. You may be a lot more successful without them,"
said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for British
anti-virus firm Sophos.
Cluley said it was too early to cry victory over mass-mailing viruses
and the trend of real criminals hitting on select groups of users
meant that Microsoft programs were no longer the default target.
Until now, teenage hackers aimed at Microsoft programs not only
because they had security holes, but also because they run on 95
percent of all computers and were the best chance for a global spread
of a virus.
However, if the main aim is to steal money, the criminal hackers would
focus on the weakest link, which in the future may well be
non-Microsoft programs, Cluley said.
The computer security experts do not expect there will ever be
perfectly safe computers. The attraction of more online financial
transactions was too appealing for criminals.
"The first lock attracted a lock picker," Juarez said.
Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.
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