Malware threat to Windows XP users

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The proportion of Windows computers infected by malware tripled in the second half of last year and XP users may face a series of new threats, Microsoft says.

Overall malware infection rates globally climbed from about five in every 1000 machines to 17 per 1000 at the end of last year, according to Microsoft’s Seattle-based Trustworthy Computing director Tim Rains. That information was based on the 600 million scans carried out by computer users using Microsoft security software each month.

The primary culprit was Rotbrow, a security program Microsoft once regarded as benign but which it reclassified in December as a threat.

Rains said Rotbrow created an exploit that had then been used by hackers to infect computers with other malware, such as a “click fraud” program that automatically directed computers to repeatedly call up and click on online advertisements.

Rotbrow appeared to have significantly increased malware infection rates in computers running all but Microsoft’s latest Windows 8.1 operating system.

Computer users could check whether their machines had been infected by visiting a trusted security software vendor and downloading the latest anti-virus software, he said. “If they have anti-virus software and are keeping it up to date, chances are they are already protected.

“If they haven’t been, they can get free anti-virus software from Microsoft and other vendors that will scan their computers for free, see if they have been infected and try to clean up that infection.”

Rains said XP users could face a series of fresh risks from Tuesday when Microsoft is due to release monthly updates for a variety of its operating systems.

Experience had shown hackers would attempt to “reverse engineer” any security updates to see if the exploits they were designed to address could be used to target XP machines, he said. Microsoft stopped freely patching security vulnerabilities in XP machines last month.

Earlier this week, a New Zealand woman lost $5000 in a scam after hackers cloned her best friend’s Facebook account. Rains said such scams were becoming more common. Many hackers had switched over the past two years from trying to hack people’s bank accounts to attempting to compromise social media sites and email services, he said.

Phishing scams against major social media sites were more widespread partly because there were fewer big social media sites than banks, so fraudsters could target the same number of victims with fewer fake websites.

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