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Ransomware, Social Scams Lead 2013 SMB Security Fears

Expect the bad guys to spend more time pursuing small and midsize business (SMB) targets on mobile, cloud, and social platforms, Symantec says.

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Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
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The greater the changes in security threats, the more determined businesses should be to stick with best practices to defend themselves.

That's the general takeaway from the security researchers at Symantec, who believe attackers will find new and better ways to reap profits from mobile, cloud, and social usage in 2013. But although threats such as more "professional" ransomware might evolve, the advice on how to combat them should sound familiar. The right mix of security technologies, backup and recovery processes, and employee awareness will help keep the risks, new and old, in check for small and midsize businesses (SMBs).

"I don't think any of those steps are new," said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response, in an interview. Still, it's a good time of year for an update on what SMBs should be watching for.

With ransomware, Haley predicts criminals will become more sophisticated in their attack methods, more vicious and emotional in their threats, and greedier in their demands. Whereas the fake antivirus scareware of the past might try to fool users into giving up credit card numbers or other information, its ransomware descendants are more likely to openly threaten the user to extort payment. "We're going to see that kind of harder attitude [of] 'I don't care if I fool you or not, I'm holding you hostage and you're going to pay up,'" Haley said.

[ Read Fake Antivirus Ringleader Must Pay $163 Million. ]

Threats of this nature aren't new, but they're expected to grow fiercer. One key reason: It's easier than ever for the criminal to collect the extorted funds, by using prepaid cards or electronic money services such as MoneyPak in the U.S. or Ukash in Europe. Credit cards are too easy for victims to cancel, and other tools such as premium text messaging proved to be inefficient collection methods for attackers, according to Haley. Prepaid cards and online payments, on the other hand, provide "an easy way for [criminals] to get the money and prosper, unfortunately, and to come up with creative ways to rip us off," Haley said.

Haley thinks ransomware will appear increasingly polished on affected users' PCs -- which will make it more difficult for the typical employee to identify it as a scam. The threats themselves will also progress. The classic ransomware pitch is to impersonate a law enforcement agency and claim the user has illegal material on his machine, and order him to pay a fine or face imprisonment. A newer instance, according to Haley, involved the attacker pretending to be with the hacktivist group Anonymous group and threatening online ruin unless the users paid up. For SMBs, such attacks might also take the form of taking control of databases or applications and demanding payment for their release.

"[Ransomware attacks] are going to do things to keep people scared [and] off-balance, so that they don't think clearly and are willing to pay that ransom to get it off that machine," Haley said. His advice if you're affected: Don't pay. "They're not really going to unlock your system," Haley said. "Once they've got your money, why do they care?" A company might still face a productivity problem while IT fixes affected systems, but calling the extortionist's bluffs at least prevents an added financial loss.

Symantec also predicts a new wave of malware and social engineering delivered via social networks. As sites such as Facebook and Twitter continue their hunt for revenue streams, attackers will follow the money. Expect employees who use applications such as Facebook Gifts, for example, to be hit with a rising number of scams that attempt to lift personal data, payment information or corporate credentials. Such attacks might also simply be designed to deliver malware to the user's machine and network, with similar bottom-line goals.

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