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6/16/2011
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SMB Websites Face Mass Meshing Attacks

Here's how to protect your SMB website--and what to do if it's been compromised.

12 Money Saving Tech Tips For SMBs
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Slideshow: 12 Money Saving Tech Tips For SMBs
Big business and government hacks might get the front-page headlines, but a giant like Citi has the cash to weather a security storm. Not so for small and midsize businesses, especially those that depend on their websites for most of their revenue--a major breach could wipe out the bottom line.

Which makes recent findings by security firm Armorize more alarming. Wayne Huang, the company's chief technology officer, and his team recently starting tracking the latest virulent strain of website infections, which they're calling "mass meshing attacks." SMBs are especially vulnerable.

"It's predominantly SMB websites," Huang said in an interview. "Websites that have decent traffic, but they aren't the Alexa top 500-type of sites like eBay or Amazon."

Huang describes the mass meshing method as an evolution of the longer-standing mass SQL injection. Whereas the latter was a brute-force, hit-or-miss attack, the newer method is much more exact--and potentially much more rewarding for the bad guys. When it's successful, it gives the fraudster much more control because they gain access to the site's administrative credentials and all of its files; Huang called it "fingerprint-level precision."

"Because they can do it at such a precise level, when they attack they don't just inject a single malicious script like in mass SQL injections," Huang said. "They inject a backdoor, which allows them total control of all the files on the website."

Huang added that hackers have gotten better at hiding those backdoors, too, making them harder to find. Similarly, mass meshing creates a bigger headache for security vendors charged with protecting end users from malware. Huang notes that in the past, thousands of mass SQL injections might have all pointed to the same handful of static, malicious domains--easy enough to blacklist. In the case of mass meshing, the infected sites themselves serve as the malicious domains--meaning there might be 20,000 or 30,000 URLs that need to be dealt with. And unlike with actual malicious domains that were never intended for genuine use, it's no longer an add-an-forget blacklist paradigm.

"These are not malicious URLs," Huang said. "These are legitimate websites with loyal customers." The Armorize team has published a detailed breakdown of the threat on their blog.

Such an attack, while not likely to generate the buzz of a breach at the CIA or other high-profile targets, could cripple a smaller business that relies on its website for sales. For starters, an infected site is likely to be blacklisted by Google--a potential deathblow for online businesses--as well as by security vendors, not to mention any software or services that use Google's Safe Browsing API. Even in a less doomsday scenario, a mass meshing infection is likely to damage a business's reputation, particularly if its customers are notified by their browser or antivirus software that its website poses a threat.

"When the website is infected, all of the traffic that [the SMB] has been building up over the years suddenly drops to a very low level," Huang said. "All of a sudden their revenue drops to nearly zero."

The bad news: Huang and his team estimate that there are as many 30,000 websites already infected by mass meshing attacks. The good news: There are of plenty of steps SMBs can take to safeguard their sites without busting their budgets. Huang offers the following advice for keeping your company's website secure against mass meshing attacks:

-- Only use https and sftp protocols to manage and make updates to your site. Using unsecure FTP, in particular, is an open invitation to scammers to sniff out your admin credentials; the default protocol isn't encrypted. "If you do this, you make it much harder [for hackers] even if your PC is infected," Huang said.

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