Cyber Thieves Target European Banks: Is the U.S. Next?

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Two of the most pervasive and dangerous types of software for stealing money from bank accounts have been improved and can now transfer money out automatically, without a hacker's supervision, researchers said.

The latest variants of the widespread SpyEye and Zeus programs have already stolen as much as 13,000 Euros at a time from a single account and are in the early stages of deployment, according to investigators at Trend Micro Inc, a Japan-based security company that has many banks as customers.

Trend Micro Vice President Tom Kellerman told Reuters that his company's researchers had seen the new attacks on a dozen financial institutions in Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy.

That is troubling because European banks generally have greater technology defenses than those in the United States, and Kellerman said it is "inevitable" that the variants will cross the Atlantic.

The new code has the potential to dramatically escalate the amount being stolen from accounts and a years-old arms race between the banks and criminal groups that are often based in Eastern Europe. "This has tremendous implications," especially as Americans move toward banking by phone, said Kellerman. "This attack toolkit ushers in a new era of bank heists."

Like other security companies, Trend Micro profits by selling software and services to institutions and consumers worried about online spying and account takeovers.

Though written and controlled by different groups, SpyEye and Zeus share the ability to be installed on computers that visit malicious websites or legitimate pages that have been compromised by hackers.

Both programs are sold in the burgeoning underground hacking economy, where they can be customized or improved with additional modules like those just discovered.

The programs already have used a technique called "web injection" to generate new entry fields when victims log on to any number of banks or other sensitive websites. Instead of seeing a bank ask for an account number and password, for example, a victimized user sees requests for both of those and an ATM card number. Everything typed in then gets whisked off to the hacker, who later signs in and transfers money to an accomplice's account.

Those transfers can be time-consuming, and the hacker has to think about how much can be sent out at once without drawing attention. Multiple, smaller transfers are preferable but take more time.

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