What is “Game Over Zeus” and how can you protect yourself?
Game Over Zeus is a highly sophisticated “Botnet” malware program which has two pretty horrendous aspects. The first is to open up a back door into your computer so that it can sniff out sensitive data such as financial details. The second is a “ransom-ware” payload which will make your data inaccessible by encrypting your files and demanding that a sum of money is paid in return for the password to access them. All very nasty but no doubt you have heard that there is some good news.
A collaboration between various international crime prevention agencies has managed to shut down the servers at the heart of this cyber-attack. However, the public has been warned that this will most likely only set things back by a couple of weeks but two weeks in computing terms is an eternity and it means that you have plenty of time to prepare and prevent yourself from becoming a victim of this awful crime.
How Can I Protect Myself?
The main goal, of course, is to not get infected in the first place. There is a heap of excellent information and links to resources available at the Stay Safe Online web site providing straightforward advice on how to prevent malware from getting on to your computer. The big message to shout from the rooftops is never open email attachments unless you absolutely know what they are. If you see an email from HMRC telling you to open the attached file to fill out a simple form for a tax rebate…. just don’t.
Over the next two weeks though, there are some things that everybody needs to do to help protect themselves from a Game Over Zeus attack. These steps are all common sense computing and should be carried out regularly anyway, but now would be a good time to check that they are in place.
1. Make Sure Your Operating System is Up-To-Date
Most operating systems update themselves automatically these days but it’s worth checking just in case. For Windows users you can find the “Windows Update” button in the start menu and Mac OS X users should open the app store and check for updates.
Windows XP users are particularly vulnerable now as support for XP has been ceased and there will be no patch available to prevent this or other malware attacks. Please see my previous blog for more information on the potential risks arising from continuing to use XP.
2. Make Sure Your Browser is Up-To Date.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer or Safari, you should make sure you have the latest version of the software. In addition to ensuring the best compatibility with web sites, keeping your browser software up-to-date will ensure that you you have the fewest possible security flaws.
Browser security can also be increased by tweaking the security settings but there is a trade-off between security and convenience. Security is increased by restricting what you will allow the browser to do automatically, launching rich content for example, and you need to strike a balance that is both useable and secure. The standard security settings on the most popular browsers will be fine for the majority of people but if you feel you can forego some functionality to increase you online security then have a look into how you can change those settings for your browser.
3. Update Your Anti-Virus Software
You’d think this would be at the top of the list but technically Game Over Zeus isn’t a virus. A virus is a self-replicating piece of code which attaches itself to another file and generally delivers its payload when the file it is attached to is executed. Sophisticated malware requires the user to install it on the host machine so that it can have access to things like registry settings. Often this is carried out by tricking a user into running an executable file, most commonly as an email attachment, which then causes the malware to be installed. Similarly malware can be installed alongside other, apparently legitimate, software so always be careful about what you install on your machine.
Back to the point though, updating your anti-virus software is just good practice. My personal favourite for Windows is Microsoft Security Essentials which is completely free of charge and can be downloaded from the Microsoft web site. It really is very good and it really is free. Mac users tend to be a bit more protected from these kind of threats as they are significantly out-numbered by Windows users and if you’re a creating malware you want to aim at the biggest target. However, Mac users are not immune from viral or malware attacks and Kapersky AV is widely regarded as the best protection for your shiny aluminium computer-box.
Many anti-virus programs also check for well-known malware. If you have complete Internet security software it may well detect the presence of the Game Over Zeus code and give you a head start in removing it from your machine.
4. Make a Backup of Your Files
The way that ransom-ware works is that it encrypts all your data so that you can’t access it. You then get a message on the screen which tells you how much to pay to get the password to unlock your data. However, attacks like this can only encrypt what is on your local machine. Anything you have backed-up or stored on a USB stick cannot be affected if the USB device is not attached to the computer when the malware is activated.
Better still (here it comes) files saved to cloud storage are entirely protected from the attack. If you have a local copy on your computer then those files will become inaccessible in the event of a malware attack of this kind but your online masters will be unaffected. Having to reload your computer is a pain in the neck but I’d rather that than hand money over to extortionists any day.
5. Don’t Be Complacent
Although the authorities have done a stirling job of striking at the heart of this attack it is important to remember that this is merely a stay of execution. By shoring up your computer security in this grace period you can be a part of the ongoing effort to curb the threat posed by cyber-criminals.