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 just annoying, spam can also be a security threat. The scale of a botnet enables 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 protect against them.

What Is A Bot and How Does It Work?

A bot is a computer compromised through malware and can be remotely controlled by a threat actor. The attacker can then use the bot to launch more attacks or to bring it into a collection of controlled computers, known as a botnet. Bot is short for “robot” and originally had a positive association. The two main reasons cybercriminals create botnets are for financial gain and recognition. Bot herders gain notoriety among fellow cybercriminals by the number of infected computers they collect in their botnet.email malware

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 attacks, such as data theft, server crashing, and 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.
  • Infect: User devices are infected with malware that can take control of their device.
  • Activate: Hackers mobilize infected devices to carry out attacks.

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

  • Spambot: One of the most common uses of a bot, a spambot is a machine that automatically distributes spam emails. Mostly, these emails contain advertisements for products or computer viruses themselves. 
  • Denial-of-service attacks invade a network or Internet service provider to disrupt service. The attacker infects as many computers as possible to create a bigger botnet network.
  • Spyware: malware that can be used to gain information from its target or targets, from passwords and credit card information to the physical data contained within files. A bot herder can sell this data on the black market, and if a bot herder gains control of a corporate network, they may be able to sell the “rights” to their bank accounts and intellectual property.
  • Click Fraud: a form of remote control that can allow a bot herder to surreptitiously click links on Web sites 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 Bots Are Used For Email Spam

Email spam needs 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.

Computer Monitor screen, concept of spam emailOnce they have a database of email addresses, they can send out bulk spam emails to a mass number of victims. Spam emails are often criminal, attempting to spread malware or steal account credentials via phishing. They may use email 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 strong 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 compromised real user accounts. A spam bot may also copy a legitimate user's profile picture to make a bot account appear more legitimate.

How Can I Protect Against Botnet Attacks?

Botnet malware threats pose a significant risk to the safety of yourself and others, so you must know how to protect yourself. Software protections and minor changes to your computer habits can help. Some tips for protecting yourself against botnets include:

cybersec bestvpractices

  • Improve all user passwords for smart devices. Using complex and lengthy passwords will keep your devices safer than weak and short passwords.
  • Avoid buying devices with weak security, as many cheap smart home gadgets prioritize user convenience over security. 
  • Update admin settings and passwords across all your devices. You’ll want to check all possible privacy and security options on anything that connects device-to-device or to the internet. Without updates to custom login credentials and private connectivity, hackers can breach and infect each of your connected devices.
  • Be wary of any email attachments. The best approach is to completely avoid downloading attachments. When downloading an attachment, carefully investigate and verify the sender’s email address. Also, consider using antivirus software that proactively scans attachments for malware before downloading.
  • Never click links in any message you receive. Texts, emails, and social media messages can all be reliable vehicles for botnet malware. Manually entering the link into the address bar will help avoid DNS cache poisoning and drive-by downloads.
  • Install effective antivirus software. A strong internet security suite will help to protect your computer against Trojans and other 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. A sign of botnet compromise may be a frequently unresponsive browser or a spike in error reports. So, a preemptive defense strategy against botnets is the most effective option for preventing attacks.

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 login pages for Google Drive, are the leading cause behind this method. Once the account has been compromised, worms and drive-by downloads can also be spread from that 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 botnets are often designed for. 

Click Fraud

The most profitable undertaking is click Fraud, which generates over $20 million monthly profit. Bot herders often create fake websites to advertise for third-parties for profit. Botmasters earn a percentage of advertising fees for every click on an advertisement executed by a bot in a botnet. 

Botnet Defense

Secure your Wifi with a strong VPN. This 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 attack left most internet inaccessible on the east coast. The attack was the work of the Mirai botnet after authorities initially feared it was the work of a hostile nation-state. This attack was originally 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 mirai botnet news headlinenation-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 while trying to convince them to hire him to mitigate those attacks.

He was also a Minecraft player known to have opportunities to make 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 their 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 server hosts 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 crimes related to the Mirai attacks. Unfortunately, the code was released to the wild by then and used as building blocks 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.

  • Learn more about an effective email security solution that understands your relationships with other people while gaining a deeper knowledge of your conversations with them.
  • Prepare your business for cyberattacks to make sure employees stay safe online.
  • By following best practices, improve your email security posture to protect against attacks and breaches.
  • Keeping the integrity of your email safe requires securing the cloud with spam filtering and enterprise-grade anti-spam services.
  • Get the latest updates on how to stay safe online.

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