Technology

Published on April 22nd, 2013 | by admin

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Botnets Stealing Bitcoins: How to Protect Your Online Currency

Over the past 15 years or so, a number of online or alternative currencies have enjoyed varying degrees of success — but only one has survived for longer than a few years and has any real value to most people.

Bitcoins have taken the online world by storm in recent months, driven in large part by the economic collapses in Europe. The online-only form of currency is controlled by its users, not a centralized bank or government. Instead, bitcoins are an algorithm-based mathematical construct: When a user purchases or earns a bitcoin via a trade with another user or when their computer completes and shares a complex mathematical equation, a unique address identifying that bitcoin is created. In theory, this prevents the theft or unauthorized use of that particular bitcoin.

However, as bitcoins have grown in value — a single bitcoin, as of April 2013, was worth around $130 USD — they have become attractive to cybercriminals, who have devised clever ways to steal the online currency. Hackers gain access to bitcoin wallets, most often stored on websites devoted to that purpose and clean out a user’s fortune in moments. But the real fortune is found in botnets that are being unleashed to create new bitcoins.

Cashing in Computer Currency

One of the reasons bitcoins are growing in value is the fact there is a limited amount available. Presently, bitcoins are only awarded to those who engage in bitcoin mining. Miners install and run a bitcoin client on their computer, which then uses CPU and GPU power to solve complex mathematical equations. When the solutions are shared and verified by the network, the miner earns 25 bitcoins. At $130 per bitcoin, a miner could earn more than $3,200 worth of bitcoins for each equation.

However, because of equations’ complexity, and the fact the client uses a great deal of CPU and GPU power, bitcoin mining is not lucrative for the average person. Most people purchase and store their currency through bitcoin wallets. Very few people engage in bitcoin mining for their money, which they can use anywhere that accepts the currency.

That is, very few people knowingly engage in bitcoin mining. Cybercriminals have developed botnets that allow them to illegally mine bitcoins using thousands of infected PCs around the world. When the botnets are deployed and working effectively, they can mine up to $100,000 or more for the operators — a practice security experts say equates to theft of private property.

How the Botnets Work

The most recent investigation of the bitcoin botnets indicated the majority of botnets were spread via Skype. Users received a message, purporting to be from a friend, telling them to check out a photo or video. When the user clicked on the link, they were taken to a site to download malware that would effectively take over their PCs for the purpose of bitcoin mining.

Because the payoff for such an operation is so high, cybercriminals aim to infect as many PCs as possible. The largest bitcoin botnet operation, ZeroAccess, uses an affiliate model to spread their malware. Affiliates make around $100 per infection. More than 2,000 people an hour click on the rogue links.

The high rate of infections confounds many people, who count on their antivirus protection to block such downloads. However, the malware used in bitcoin mining has a very low detection rate and antivirus information regarding the latest versions of the malware often lags behind.

Protecting Your Computer From Botnets

So how do you keep your machine free of botnets that will use it to steal bitcoins? Keeping your antivirus software up-to-date is important; a robust program including Botnets detection capabilities is your best bet. Update your software when prompted and never turn off your firewall.

Since most malware is spread via links in email or instant messages, be cautious before clicking. Unless you’re certain the message is from your friend and contains the image or video it claims to, delete the message. If you do inadvertently click a malicious link or suspect you’ve been infected (your machine is running especially slow, for instance) a malicious software remover can identify and remove the problem.

Experts predict as long as bitcoins have such high values and the process of mining them remains complex, botnets will continue to infect machines to complete the equations. However, if and when the value drops, and when more legitimate miners begin using ASIC (application-specific integrated circuits) to quickly mine the currency, the botnets will turn their focus elsewhere — but they will have already stolen millions of dollars.

About the Author: Nicole Bradford has extensively researched the worlds of finance and technology alike. She has written on both subjects, and is working on a bitcoins-related study at the moment.


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