What Are Bots and Botnets?

Everyone has received spam in their email inbox, and spam bots are the greatest facilitators of junk mail online. While mostly annoying, spam messages are also a growing email security threat.

Botnets enable the attacker to perform large-scale scams that were previously impossible with malware. Since botnets remain under the control of a remote attacker, infected devices can receive updates and quickly change their behavior. As a result, bot herders can often rent access to segments of their botnet on the black market for significant financial gain. This article will discuss bots and botnets, their differences, how cybercriminals use them, and how to ensure email protection that will combat these email threats.

What Is A Bot and How Does It Work?

A bot is a malware-compromised computer that a threat actor can remotely control. The bot can launch more attacks or be added to a collection of controlled computers called a botnet. The two main reasons cybercriminals create botnets are for financial gain and threat recognition. Bot herders gain notoriety among fellow cybercriminals by the number of infected computers they collect in their botnet.

The term “botnet” is a combination of “robot” and “network.” Botnet assembly typically occurs during the infiltration stage of a multi-layer scheme. The bots are a tool to automate mass spam attacks that result in data loss, crashing servers, or malware distribution. Botnets use your devices to scam other people without your knowledge. 

Botnets are designed to grow, automate, and speed up a hacker’s ability to carry out more significant attacks. One person or a small group of hackers can only carry out so many actions on their local devices, but attackers can acquire additional machines to leverage for a small price and a bit of time. A bot herder leads a collective of hijacked devices with remote commands that, once compiled, a herder uses to command programming for future attacks. 

The primary stages of building a botnet consist of a few steps, including:

  • Prep and Expose: hacker exploits a vulnerability to expose users to malware threat types.
  • Infect: User devices are infected with malware that can take control of their device.
  • Activate: Hackers mobilize infected devices to carry out attacks and other threats.

The aim of most bot attacks is financial gain, while others are done purely for recognition. Attacks that can be launched after a computer has been taken over as a bot include:

  • Spambot: This is a machine that automatically distributes spam emails. These spear phishing emails (where a link leads you to a malicious URL) mostly contain advertisements for products or computer viruses. 
  • Denial-of-Service Attacks: These invade a network or Internet service provider to disrupt a service, infecting as many computers as possible to create a more extensive botnet network.
  • Spyware: This is malware that can be used to gain information from its target/s through obtaining passwords, credit card information, and file data, whether digital or physical. A bot herder can sell this data on the black market. Gaining control of a corporate network allows the bot herder to sell the “rights” to certain compromised accounts with banking information and intellectual property.
  • Click Fraud: This remote control can allow a bot herder to surreptitiously click links on websites and online advertising, bolstering numbers for advertisers and producing more money.
  • Dial-up Bots: Dial-up bots aim to connect to dial-up modems and force them to dial phone numbers. The intention is to tie up the line, eventually causing the user to change numbers or dial 1-900 numbers to rack up charges on someone’s bill.

How Are Bots Used For Email Spam Services?

Email spam services need as many working email addresses as they can find. Email address harvesting is carried out by bots that scan web pages, look for text that follows the email address format (text + @ symbol + domain), and copy that text into the spammer's database of targets, resulting in compromised accounts that now work in favor of the spam attacker.

Once they have a database of email addresses, they can send bulk spam spear-phishing emails to many victims. Spam email attack types are often criminal, attempting to spread malware or steal account credentials via phishing attacks. They may use spoofing to make it appear like their emails come from a legitimate source.

Comment spam is any spam that appears in the comments section of a website. Some spam bots look for and post in sections that don't require an account for participation or a forum that does not have robust verification to check if a commenter is a human user. Bots create fake user accounts and leave comments; if one account gets shut down, they create another. Attackers can use this method to automate promoting and publishing spam.

Many bots are active on social media platforms and will send messages or create posts promising free items, product deals, adult content, or other offers. They might also like, share, or retweet spam posts or leave spam comments on unrelated posts. Social spam bots operate via fake accounts or real users who now have compromised accounts. A spam bot may copy a legitimate user's profile picture to make a bot account appear more trustworthy.

How Can I Protect Against Botnet Attacks?

Botnet malware email threats pose a significant risk to the safety of yourself and others, so you must know how to protect yourself. Email security software, malware protection, and minor changes to your computer habits can help. Here are some tips:

  • Improve all user passwords for smart devices. Using complex and lengthy passwords to have a secure email will keep your devices safer than weak and short passwords.
  • Avoid buying devices with weak email security, as many cheap smart home gadgets prioritize user convenience over integrating proper email security services. 
  • Update admin settings and passwords across all your devices. You’ll want to check all possible privacy-enhancing and email security technologies options on anything that connects device-to-device or to the internet. Without updates to custom login credentials and private connectivity, hackers can infect each of your connected devices through email security breaches.
  • Be wary of any email attachments, and when you can, avoid downloading them. If you must access the file, carefully investigate and verify the sender’s email address. Consider using anti-virus and anti-phishing software that proactively scans attachments for malware before downloading.
  • Never click links in any message you receive. Texts, emails, and social media messages can be vehicles for botnet malware. Manually entering the link into the address bar will help avoid Domain Name System (DNS) cache poisoning and drive-by downloads.
  • Install effective antivirus software. A robust internet email security suite will help to protect your computer against Trojans and other email threats. Be sure to get a product that covers all your devices, including Android phones and tablets.

The profitability and nature of botnet attacks make them a favorite among hackers. Botnets are challenging to detect, even for experienced users. Indicators of compromise include a frequently unresponsive browser or a spike in error reports. Having a preemptive defense strategy in place to ensure malware protection against botnets is an effective option for preventing attacks. Here are some spam email threats about which you should know:

Email Spamming

Hackers use email to spread malware using unsolicited attachments or links as invitations to join a botnet. Credential harvesting trojans, such as spoofed email login pages for Google Drive, are the leading cause behind this method. Attackers will spread worms and drive-by downloads once they can access a compromised account.

Botnet Defense

Add Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) to your email, then guard it further with an authenticator app. This protects you from the mass identity theft for which botnets are often designed. 

Click Fraud

The most profitable undertaking is Click Fraud, which generates over $20 million in monthly profit. Bot herders often create fake websites to advertise for third parties, and botmasters earn a percentage of advertising fees for every click on an ad executed by a bot within the network.

Botnet Defense

Secure your Wifi with a strong VPN that creates an encrypted tunnel that is nearly impossible for hackers to penetrate. 

Minecraft Inspired Denial-of-Service Attacks

On October 12, 2016, a massive Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack left most of the internet inaccessible on the East Coast of the United States. While authorities originally feared that the attack resulted from a hostile nation-state, upon further investigation, they learned it was instead the Mirai botnet’s work, initially created to make money off Minecraft aficionados before it grew more powerful than its creators thought possible.

Most malware ecosystems stem from Eastern European organized crime or nation-state intelligence services. Paras Jha became interested in how DDoS attacks could be used for profit before launching a series of minor attacks against his university's systems. The attacks were timed to match important events like registration and midterms, and he would then convince the university to hire him to mitigate attacks.

Jha was also a Minecraft player known for making money by hosting Minecraft game servers. This leads to running skirmishes where hosts launch DDoS attacks against their rivals, hoping to knock their servers offline and attract viewers and business.

Mirai was another iteration of a series of malware botnet packages that Jha and his friends developed. Mirai encapsulated clever techniques, including the list of hardcoded passwords.

Mirai's first big wave of attacks came on September 19, 2016, and was used against the French host OVH. It turned out that OVH hosted a popular tool raft servers use to fight against DDoS attacks. It wasn’t long before Jha posted the code of the Mirai botnet online, a common technique, as it gives malware creators plausible deniability. This is because attackers know that copycats will use the code, making it difficult to conclude who created it first. The big attack on October 12 was launched by somebody else against Dyn, an infrastructure company offering DNS services to several prominent websites. The FBI believed that this attack was ultimately targeting Microsoft game servers.

In December 2016, Jha and his associates pleaded guilty to the Mirai attacks and related crimes. Unfortunately, the code was already out and about, serving as a building block for further botnet controllers.

Keep Learning About Bot & Botnet Protection

Botnets are a sophisticated and dangerous cybersecurity threat that should concern businesses, individuals, and governments. It's also essential to keep spam off your webpage so your brand isn't associated with malicious activity.

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