Cybercriminals turn to video ads to plant malware

The complex code behind video ads makes it harder to detect malware

Cybercriminals have been delivering malware through online display ads for years, but they appear to be making headway with a new distribution method: video advertisements.

Both methods of attack, known as malvertising, can have a broad impact and are a major headache for the ad industry. A single malicious advertisement, distributed to several highly trafficked sites, can expose tens of thousands of computers to malware in a short time.

Some ad networks and publishers have taken steps to vet their ads more thoroughly, but criminals are constantly on the lookout for weaknesses.

An attack detected about two weeks ago shows how cybercriminals are showing more interest in creating malicious video ads.

Attacks using video ads have been seen before, but this one was notable for the websites it affected, including several of the most-trafficked as ranked by Alexa.

The incident was written up earlier this month by The Media Trust, a company that's developed security tools and services for detecting malvertising.

For about 12 hours starting late on Oct. 29, some 3,000 websites served up the malicious video ad, which displayed a pop-up window nicknamed "Tripbox."

The window warned that an update was needed for browser software like Apple's Safari, and if people followed the instructions, a backdoor was downloaded to their computer.

tripbox malvertising 2 The Media Trust

How a large video malvertising campaign attacked users according to The Media Trust.

Video ads are an attractive target for hackers because they're much harder than display ads to vet for quality, said Chris Olson, co-founder and CEO of The Media Trust.

These days, video ads are often delivered using the Digital Video Ad Serving Template (VAST), a JavaScript-like wrapper. But many elements, such as tracking tags, can be stuffed into the template, turning it into a big digital sandwich.

"It's cumbersome," Olson said. "It's pieces of code running inside of a template, which is basically a container of code."

The upshot is that it's that harder to ensure that bad things aren't lurking within, and that's not lost on the bad guys, Olson said.

Video ads have been more expensive to buy than display ads, which has helped keep criminals away. They want to infect as many computers as possible, but they still have to pay for the impressions. But prices are dropping, making video a more attractive vehicle.

In the incident two weeks ago, the malicious content came from a domain called brtmedia[.]net. It was unclear if that domain is connected with BRT Media, which appears to be an online advertising company. Officials there could not immediately be reached via email.

Olson said it is difficult to estimate how many computers may have been exposed to the malicious ad. But it highlights what could be an emerging problem as video becomes more pervasive.

"It means that companies serving video ads and publishers that monetize via video ads need to be paying attention to the video channel just like they would with display advertising or other third-party code that they run on their sites," Olson said.

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