Recognizing Malicious Links

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If you’re planning to take the Security+ exam, you should have a basic understanding of various types of attacks. This includes recognizing an attack using malicious links, malicious code, or malicious attachments.

For example, can you answer this question?

Q. Marge reports that she keeps receiving unwanted emails about personal loans. What does this describe?

A. Phishing

B. Spear phishing

C. Spam

D. Vishing

More, do you know why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answers are incorrect? The answer and explanation is available at the end of this post.

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Spam

Spam is unwanted or unsolicited email. Depending on which study you quote, between 80 percent and 92 percent of all Internet email is spam. Some spam is harmless advertisements, while much more is malicious. Spam can include malicious links, malicious code, or malicious attachments. Even when it’s not malicious, when only 1 of 10 emails is valid, it can waste a lot of your time.

In some cases, legitimate companies encourage users to opt-in to their email lists and then send them email about their products. When users opt-in to a mailing list, they agree to the terms. On the surface, you’d think that this means that you agree to receive email from the company and that’s true. However, terms often include agreeing to allow their partners to send you email, which means the original company can share your email address with others.

Malicious Links

Legitimate companies don’t send you malicious spam, but they might send you more email than you want. Laws require them to include the ability to opt-out, indicating you don’t want to receive any more emails from them. Once you opt-out, you shouldn’t receive any more emails from that company.

Originally, spam was just unwanted advertisements sent out to people, even if they chose to opt-out. However, attackers began using spam for malicious purposes. Attackers often include malicious attachments and malicious code within spam email. More recently, spam attacks include malicious links. If users click on a link in a malicious email, it often takes them to a site hosting a drive-by download.

Criminals use a variety of methods to collect email addresses. They buy lists from other criminals and harvest them from web sites. Some malware scans address books of infected computers to collect email. Because they are criminals, they don’t care about laws, but they might include opt-out instructions in spam they send. However, instead of this getting you off the email list, it provides them confirmation that your email address is valid. The result is more spam.

Remember this

Spam is unwanted email. Phishing is malicious spam. Attackers attempt to trick users into revealing sensitive or personal information or clicking on a link. Links within email can also lead unsuspecting users to install malware.

Spim

Spim is a form of spam using instant messaging (IM). It targets instant messaging users, such as those using Yahoo! Messenger or Windows Live Messenger. Some social media sites also support pop-up windows, and attackers sometimes try to impersonate a user’s friend and encourage the victim to click on a link. Many IM services support the use of whitelists, where users identify who they’ll receive messages from and the IM system blocks all other messages.

Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation occurs when a user or process accesses elevated rights and permissions. When attackers first compromise a system, they often have minimal privileges. However, privilege escalation tactics allow them to get more and more privileges.

For example, imagine hacker Harry is attacking a web server over the Internet. He might only have guest or anonymous access to the system initially, and he can’t do much with this access. He uses different techniques during the attack to gain more and more privileges. If he can escalate his privileges high enough, he will have full administrative or root access to the system.

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Malware frequently tries to gain access to elevated privileges through the logged-on user. For example, if a user logs on with administrative privileges, the malware can elevate its privileges through the user account.

Many organizations require administrators to have two accounts. They use one account for regular use and one for administrative use. The only time they would log on with the administrator account is when they are performing administrative work. This reduces the time the administrative account is in use, and reduces the potential for privilege escalation if the user’s system is infected with malware.


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Q. Marge reports that she keeps receiving unwanted emails about personal loans. What does this describe?

A. Phishing

B. Spear phishing

C. Spam

D. Vishing

Answer is C. Spam is unwanted emails from any source.

Phishing and spear phishing are types of attacks using email.

Vishing is similar to phishing but it uses telephone technology.

See Chapter 5 of the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-401 Study Guide for more information on other attacks.

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