Cybercriminals exploiting Australia for attacks as malware diversity explodes

A growing number of cybercriminals are using Australia as a launchpad for malware attacks on other countries, according to new statistics suggesting Australia-based attacks doubled during 2015 – putting the country in the top 10 global hosts for suspicious URLs, malicious IP addresses and phishing sites.

The Webroot 2016 Threat Brief: Next-Generation Threats Exposed analysed the activities of the company's Webroot Threat Intelligence Platform (WTIP), which processed more than 27 billion URL requests and 9 billion file behaviour records during the year.

This analysis suggested that the number of new malware files increased by 29 percent in 2015 over the previous year, correlated with a decline in the number of potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) of 30 percent and a 29 percent decline in the umber of malicious executables overall.

Yet this improvement is illusory, the report's authors warned, noting that attackers were transitioning from conventional delivery models to polymorphic code. This “caused the apparent rate of change in malware to be inflated” in recent years, the authors warn. “Now that malware is almost purely polymorphic, attackers are replacing malware variants with other malware variants, instead of replacing one traditional malware instance with many polymorphic instances.”

Each Webroot user encountered an average of 1.6 new, unique malware instances and 3 new, unique PUAs during 2015, which also saw a precipitous drop in the number of file instances per malware family – from 700 in 2014 to less than 100 last year – and PUAs, which dropped from nearly 30,000 instances per PUA family to just over 260.

This suggests that attackers “are now making their PUAs more difficult to detect, using polymorphic distribution models and rapid new variant generation to circumvent traditional detection methods,” the authors warn, noting that the past year saw a surge in the number malware variants – from 14,000 in 2014 to over 130,000 in 2015.

Although Australia only accounted for 2 percent of global attacks, its steady rise – also seen in previous reports such as Akamai's finding that Australian sources were responsible for 5 percent of global distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks – has been attributed both to the increasing prevalence of broadband and the increasing recognition of Australia as a desirable and vulnerable target for malicious activity.

The report also drew on WTIP's analysis of 12 million new and updated mobile apps, which it singled out as a particularly dangerous attack vector, and found that 52 percent of new and updated apps during the second half of 2015 were classified as unwanted or malicious. That figure was just 21 percent in the first half of 2015 – suggesting that mobile platforms are becoming increasingly appealing for cybercriminals that have continued to refine their attack strategies to take advantage of the ubiquity of mobile devices.

Webroot's findings reinforce similar new results from Kaspersky Labs, which reported that the number of new malicious mobile apps detected in 2015 jumped three-fold over the previous year, from 295,539 to 884,774.

Mobile ransomware attacked 94,344 unique users, Kaspersky reported, jumping five-fold from the 18,478 such incidents recorded in 2014. This is in line with a growing trend towards ransomware that has seen Australian users, in particular, targeted with increasing frequency as cybercriminals redouble their efforts on countries where success rates for ransomware attacks on relatively wealthy victims are seen as high.

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