Which Malware Lures Work Best?

Last week at the APWG eCrime Conference in Barcelona I presented some new results about an old Instant Messaging (IM) worm from a paper written by Tyler Moore and myself.

In late April 2010 users of the Yahoo and Microsoft IM systems started to get messages from their buddies which said, for example:
foto ☺ http://www.example.com/image.php?user@email.example.com
where the email address was theirs and the URL was for some malware.

Naturally, since the message was from their buddy a lot of folks clicked on the link and when the Windows warning pop-up said “you cannot see this photo until you press OK” they pressed OK and (since the Windows message was in fact a warning about executing unknown programs downloaded from the Internet) they too became infected with the malware. Hence they sent foto ☺ messages to all their buddies and the worm spread at increasing speed.

By late May 2010 I had determined how the malware was controlled (it resolved hostnames to locate IRC servers then joined particular channels where the topic was the message to be sent to buddies) and built a Perl program to join in and monitor what was going on. I also determined that the criminals were often hosting their malware on hosting sites with world-readable Apache weblogs so we could get exact counts of malware downloads (how many people clicked on the links).

Full details, and the story of a number of related worms that spread over the next two years can be found in the academic paper (and are summarised in the slides I used for a very short talk in Barcelona and a longer version I presented a week earlier in Luxembourg).

The key results are:

  • Thanks to some sloppiness by the criminals we had some brief snapshots of activity from an IRC channel used when the spreading phase was complete and infected machines were being forced to download new malware — this showed that 95% of people had clicked OK to dismiss the Microsoft warning message.
  • We had sufficient download data to estimate that around 3 million users were infected by the initial worm and we have records of over 14 million distinct downloads over all of the different worms (having ignored events caused by security monitoring, multiple clicks by the same user, etc.). That is — this was a large scale event.
  • We were able to compare the number of clicks during periods where the criminals vacillated between using URL shorteners in their URLs and when they used hostnames that (vaguely resembled) brands such as Facebook, MySpace, Orkut and so on. We found that when shorteners were used this reduced the number of clicks by almost half — presumably because it made users more cautious.
  • From early 2011 the worms were mainly affecting Brazil — and the simple “foto ☺” had long been replaced by other textual lures. We found that when the criminals used lures in Portuguese (e.g. “eu acho que é você na”, which has, I was told in Barcelona, a distinctive Brazilian feel to it) they were far more successful in getting people to click than when they used ‘language independent’ lures such as “hahha foto”

There’s nothing here which is super-surprising, but it is useful to see our preconceptions borne out not in a laboratory experiment (where it is hard to ensure that the experimental subjects are behaving quite the way that they would ‘in the wild’) but by large scale measurements from real events.

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