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Macs Crawling With Windows Malware, Study Finds

By Rachelle Dragani MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 26, 2012 10:42 AM PT

One in five Mac computers is carrying malware that could spread to PCs, according to a new research from security vendor Sophos.

Macs Crawling With Windows Malware, Study Finds

The security team ran its Mac antivirus software on 100,000 Mac computers. It found that most of the malware found is directed at Windows PCs, so Macs harboring the infections don't show any symptoms, unless perhaps the Mac is also running Windows. However, those computers can also spread malware to Windows PCs.

Sophos also found that one in 36 Macs, or 2.7 percent, were carrying Mac OS X malware. Of those, 75 percent harbored the Flashback malware. Numbers vary on Flashback's spread, but some estimates pegged the number at 650,000 Macs infected over the past few months. It's installed when it tricks users into downloading a fake version of Adobe Flash Player. Apple issued a Java update for Mac OS X to help remove the infection.

Another 18 percent of the Mac computers analyzed by Sophos were found with MacDefender scareware. The remaining threats included fake antivirus attacks, which can obtain credit card information from users.

Macs Beware

The 2012 Flashback attack has taken many Mac users by surprise, since reports of widespread malware infections are relatively rare in in the Apple universe. It's that sense of security that Sophos Senior Technology Consultant Graham Cluley says makes Macs a good target for cybercriminals.

"There's a lot less Mac malware on Macs than Windows malware on Macs," he told MacNewsWorld. "But that doesn't mean it's not a problem."

With the Flashback threat and a greater understanding of possible online security dangers, Cluley said, Mac users are in for a "wake-up call."

Mac users aren't the only ones who need to get smarter about security, according to Eugene Kapersky, the founder and CEO of his eponymous security company. Apple is about 10 years behind its tech competitors in security, he said recently, which could pose a serious problem for both the company and its loyal users going forward.

Those users are rapidly growing in number, which is part of the reason Macs are a hot target, said Chris Pickard, research & methodology director of MRG Effitas and CEO of Effitas Group.

"PCs make up the vast majority of the computer users, so this is why the PC / Windows has been targeted," he told MacNewsWorld. "

Due to the increase in the number of Mac users, there is now a sufficiently large user base to attract the attention of criminals. It is now worth their while to invest their time and effort in creating malware which targets Macs, he said.

Prevention Is Key

That might not be good news for Mac users, but Cluley and Pickard agreed that prevention is both crucial and possible. The first step should be to run an antivirus program, many of which are free. With the current Flashback threat, Pickard said uninstalling Java is also a good prevention step at this point.

"A good antivirus program should intercept any malware which tries to enter your Mac, and should, in most cases, be able to automatically remove any occurrences of malware which already exist," said Cluley.

Even if a computer isn't showing any symptoms, it can also help stop the spread to other PCs, if that Mac happens to be one that's harboring some of the malware that Sophos found in its report.

The researchers said being alert is also key. Cluley warned that viruses attack in a variety of ways, including USB devices, email attachments and downloads, so awareness about every action on a computer is critical.

"Keep your wits about you and stay informed," he said. "If you keep clued-up about security threats you are less likely to be tricked by a cybercriminal into making a poor decision."

However users decide to be proactive in stopping the spread of malware, Pickard said the global security scene is scary enough that no users -- Mac especially -- can't continue believing they're free from danger simply because they own a Mac.

"Mac users need to be educated to become aware that they are as vulnerable as PC users," said Pickard. "A false belief that they are secure is very dangerous and makes them a prime target for the criminals," he said.

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