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Hackers Target Consumers

Two new studies show consumers still clueless about computer security, and hungry attackers putting them high on the menu

It's duck-hunting season, and consumers are the ducks.

That's the conclusion of two separate studies published in the last few days by security researchers studying end-user behavior and computer crime trends.

In a study of banking customers released last Friday, the Association of Payment and Clearing Services (APACS) -- which represents most of the major banks in the U.K. -- found that many online consumers still don't follow even the most basic security practices.

And in its latest Internet Security Threat Report, released today, Symantec found that consumers are increasingly being targeted by attackers for identity theft, fraud, and other financially-motivated crimes.

"Attackers see end users as the weakest link in the security chain and are constantly targeting them in an effort to profit," says Arthur Wong, senior vice president for Symantec's Security Response and Managed Services unit.

Despite warnings from all over the industry, consumers continue to practice unsafe computing, according to the APACS report. In a study of 1,835 people who regularly use the Internet to access their current savings and credit card accounts, some 3.8 percent said they would still respond to an unsolicited email asking them to follow a link and re-enter personal security details.

Less than half of those surveyed regularly update their anti-virus software. Two-thirds have not installed a firewall, the study says. Only one-tenth are using anti-spam software. And more than a third of respondents store their passwords by writing them down or storing them somewhere on their computers.

As with many diseases, the most at risk are the oldest and the youngest, according to the APACS report. Nearly 70 percent of people 55 and older never change their passwords, and only half of them memorize their passwords without writing them down. By contrast, 12 percent of respondents under age 24 would click on the link to divulge account details -- three times higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, home users have become the most targeted attack sector, accounting for 86 percent of all targeted attacks, according to the Symantec study. Financial services businesses were a distant second. Symantec researchers have identified increased attacks aimed at client-side applications, increased use of evasive tactics to avoid detection, and a higher percentage of targeted attacks.

And more vulnerabilities are turning up on desktop devices, Symantec says. Web applications accounted for 69 percent of all vulnerabilities documented by the security software company in the first half of 2006, and the number of vulnerabilities found in Web browsers has also increased, the researchers say.

The APACS study supports the Symantec data. The number of separate phishing attacks increased by more than 800 percent between August of 2005 and August 2006, according to the banking organization. Total online banking losses in the U.K. last year were about $44.1 million; credit card fraud losses were about $417 million, with Internet fraud accounting for about one-quarter of the total, APACS says.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC)
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