‘Sick’ blackhat hackers behind search engine attacks

31 Mar 2010

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Blackhat SEO hackers are onto a new money maker by taking advantage of breaking news of high-profile deaths and disasters to spread their malware.

The business of using blackhat Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) techniques to impregnate legitimate sites has become a huge money-spinner for cyber criminals.

Every day, scores of new malicious campaigns are discovered taking advantage of the hottest news stories on the internet to spread malware; many of them profiting from high-profile deaths and disasters.

With this significant problem in mind, leading IT security and data protection firm Sophos has published a probing whitepaper analysing how attackers have created automated kits that use blackhat SEO methods – cynically exploiting tragic and salacious breaking news stories – to subvert legitimate websites for personal gain.

In the past, the deaths of celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Boyzone’s Stephen Gateley and Natasha Richardson, and the marital problems of actress Sandra Bullock have all provided rich and attractive content for hackers trying to take advantage of trending news stories.

Just this week, after two suicide bombs exploded on the Moscow Metro, resulting in 39 confirmed deaths, Sophos warned that this is exactly the kind of incident that will mobilise blackhat SEO and malware gangs: “When terrible tragedies such as this take place we all rush to the web to find out more and the cynical SEO hackers know this," explained Sophos’ principal virus researcher Fraser Howard.

“After the death of a Sea World animal trainer by a killer whale, sick hackers automatically used blackhat SEO techniques to stuff booby-trapped web pages with related content. This kind of profiteering is not just distasteful; it’s also potentially dangerous to millions of innocent internet users.”

The technical paper, by Howard and Sophos researcher Onur Komili, details how it has become routine for attackers to compromise web content in order to distribute malware with sites often being abused in a variety of different ways once compromised.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Hackers are taking advantage of breaking news to spread malware

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com