Economic incentives drive virus and hacker communities SURELY ONE OF the most unsettling developments in recent years has been the convergence of the virus community with spammers. Each of these groups is a nightmare all by itself, but the idea of their working together is not a pleasant one. That, however, is the trend according to Charles Cousins, the managing director of Sophos, Asia. In the beginning, it was spotty teenagers who wrote viruses and they were simply trying to seek attention. There may not be much money in that pursuit, but there is plenty in spam. 'While it is true that people still write viruses for other reasons, an economic incentive is driving innovation in the virus and hacker communities in a different direction - namely quietly hijacking, rather than noisily vandalising, computer systems,' he said. 'Previously, these groups just wanted to gain notoriety, which meant causing obvious damage. Now they have a financial incentive which changes the aim of viruses and makes everyone a target.' This financial incentive means that they are not likely to give up soon. It may seem utterly ridiculous to most of us that there is any money in all this but unfortunately gullibility has no borders. If you imagine that only 5 per cent of all spam is successful, you will easily see that it is worth it to some. Today, it is made even worse with software that helps the spammers ply their ugly trade. It is called 'ratware'. 'As well as having access to a host of new techniques and a huge network of servers, spammers are also aided by the emergence of specialised software known as ratware. Ratware is readily available on the internet and it allows sophisticated spam attacks to be generated automatically,' Mr Cousins said. 'This, of course, has generated a small cottage industry of spamming operations as well as the traditional professional spammers. Using ratware, spammers need only enter their message and the software automatically co-ordinates the services and manages the campaign.' Because of these recent developments, spam is becoming a serious underground industry. Working together with virus writers, hackers and others, the new spammers are attacking with greater sophistication. Mr Cousins said that all of this was adding even more work to IT departments, which were often understaffed and over-worked. 'The growing number of attacks places a heavy burden on network and user productivity, and the task of protecting the IT infrastructure is made harder by new types of threat that combine multiple methods of attack to beat individual security solutions.' Sophos believes its continued vigilance has paid off because it has enjoyed continued growth for many years with customers renewing licences nearly all the time. It was most unlikely, he said, that things would be going back to normal any time soon. These attacks seemed to be here for good. 'With the increasing aggressiveness of spam campaigns and the growing sophistication of spammer networks, businesses need to implement protection throughout their organisation from a vendor that has visibility and expertise in all areas of the overall problem,' he said. Spammers have become the new pariah of the digital world today and for good reason. Not only do they load up our electronic mailboxes with utter rubbish, the software that is meant to kill the spam often targets legitimate messages. Companies such as Sophos spend a great deal of time and effort to write software that will prevent this or greatly reduce it. Perhaps every computer should come with a warning telling the user not to buy anything that is unsolicited. Sadly, that probably won't work either. There are simply too many people who do not realise that a deal that seems too good to be true almost certainly is.