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'Middlemen' Drive Distribution Of Rogue Security Software, Report Says

Symantec study says networks of 'affiliates' are paid between a penny and 55 cents for each download of scareware

Who's behind the recent rash of fake security software being distributed over the Web? A new study suggests the culprits might not be the developers of the malicious apps, but the growing channel of "middlemen" who are paid to distribute it.

According to the Symantec Report on Rogue Security Software, which was published earlier today, much of the "scareware" on the Web today is actually distributed by "affiliates," or hackers who are paid each time they successfully install an exploit on a user's PC.

"There's definite organization behind it," says Marc Fossi, executive editor of the Internet Security Threat Report (ISTR) at Symantec and one of the authors of the rogue security report. "It's a lot like the old adware business model, where affiliates were the main drivers."

Most affiliates are working on a pay-per-install model that pays them anywhere from a penny to 55 cents each time a scareware program is installed, Fossi says. "We've even seen affiliates collecting VIP points that they can redeem for high-end electronics -- in one case, there was a promise of a luxury sports sedan to the affiliate with the most downloads."

U.S. installations generally offer the highest commissions for affiliates, the report says.

The top affiliates of rogue security distribution site TrafficConverter.biz reportedly earned as much as $332,000 a month in commissions for installing and selling security risks, including rogue security software, Symantec says.

Of course, the originators of the scareware are making even more money, according to the study. Each rogue program costs the user between $30 and $100, but that's just the start of the cost to the user, Fossi observes.

"Once you've installed it, the [originators] have the ability to add more malicious software to the machine -- keyloggers, bots, and information stealers may come later," Fossi says.

Symantec has detected more than 250 distinct rogue security software programs, according to the report. The five mostly commonly reported fake applications are SpywareGuard 2008, AntiVirus 2008, AntiVirus 2009, SpywareSecure, and XP AntiVirus.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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