Cyber criminals are stepping up their attacks on Georgia, which in the midst of its conflict with Russia by sending out a new batch of malicious spam messages, apparently with the aim of building a new botnet network of remote-controlled computers.
The poorly worded messages started going out early Friday morning, and now make up close to five percent of the spam traffic measured by the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Spam Data Mine, according to Gary Warner, a director of computer research and forensics at the university.
With headlines like "Mikheil Saakashvili gay scandal! New of this week!" the stories try to trick victims into clicking on a fake BBC story about the president of Georgia. When the victim clicks on the link, however, he is taken to a malicious Web server that then tries to infect his computer.
Disturbingly, the attack code used by this Web server is not blocked by most antivirus products, Warner said. In tests, his team found that only four out of the 36 antivirus products featured in the Virus Total malware testing service spotted the code.
So far, Warner's team has tracked the messages back to 44 spam-sending computers, none of which has previously been associated with junk e-mail. Interestingly, six of these computers are located in Russia, which is rarely a direct source of spam, and one of them lies within the Russian Ministry of Education.
Although the spammers seem to be setting up a botnet, the ultimate use of this network remains unclear. Warner speculated that it could be used to launch further cyber-attacks against Georgian government computers.
Symantec has identified the malicious software as a variant of the Trojan.Blusod programme, said Kevin Haley, director of product management with Symantec Security Response. In the past, spammers have used this program to install fake antivirus software on victim's computers, which then falsely identifies problems and offers to clean them up for a fee, he said.
Warner disputed Symantec's analysis, noting that Symantec itself was not detecting the Trojan program, according to Virus Total. "This is new malware," he said.
The question of whether Georgia and Russia are engaging in state-sponsored cyber-warfare has been a matter of some debate, following the eruption of hostilities between the two countries on Aug. 7.
On Monday, Georgia moved its Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site to Google's Blogspot, claiming that a Russian cyberattack had knocked its server offline.
Security experts say that while the recent Georgian cyber-attacks are more intense then those launched a year ago against Estonia, there is no evidence that either of the events were actually state-sponsored cyber-warfare.
Some have likened those events to a "cyber brawl," with nationalistic Russian hackers launching spontaneous computer attacks against neighboring Estonia.
"I think it's almost exactly what we saw back in Estonia," Warner said of the recent events in Georgia. "I really doubt this is any action by the Russian government."