New POS Malware Emerges in Time for the Holidays

What's old is new again. Older forms of point-of-sale malware are re-emerging along with new, never-seen-before variants.

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POS malware

'Tis the season for … malware? Ever since the Target breach was first revealed in December 2013, there has been a heightened awareness around point-of-sale (POS) malware. Now, a few short weeks before the 2015 holiday shopping season starts in earnest, multiple security firms are sounding the alarm on POS malware that is both old and new.

Trustwave, the security firm that first publicly identified the Backoff POS malware that affected more than 1,000 U.S business in 2014, is now warning about the Cherry Picker POS malware.

Cherry Picker is unrelated to the Backoff malware family and could well be older than Backoff, according to Eric Merritt, security researcher, Trustwave SpiderLabs. He noted that the initial reporting on Cherry Picker was done several years ago.

"We encountered Cherry Picker again in a recent investigation, and given the uptick in POS malware across the industry, we decided it was important to conduct a much more in-depth analysis of the threat in order to ensure the public was made aware of this specific malware and the broader problem," Merritt told eWEEK.

While Backoff malware infections in 2014 were widespread, the impact of Cherry Picker at this point in 2015 is a bit more difficult to determine.

"We are currently working a single case, but due to the low detection rate of this malware and its ability to skirt by traditional antivirus technologies, it could potentially have a wider impact on any business with a POS application that processes credit card numbers," Merritt said. "Our data comes primarily from our forensic investigations that occur when a business or vendor is concerned about a potential breach."

Cherry Picker will run on most Microsoft Windows operating systems, and it has been tested on Windows 7 and Windows XP, Merritt said. Most infections occur in environments using remote administration software with weak password policies.

Security researchers at Proofpoint are also warning about the dangers of POS malware, with the new discovery of the AbaddonPOS malware.

"We have not yet found any evidence to link AbaddonPOS to any other POS malware, but it is possible that there are connections we have not been able to detect," Kevin Epstein, vice president of threat operations at Proofpoint, told eWEEK. "The lack of antivirus signatures and other research suggest that AbaddonPOS is new and unrelated to other POS malware."

The impact of AbaddonPOS from an infection perspective is also not entirely clear at this point. Proofpoint is currently engaged in an ongoing investigation with AbaddonPOS, Epstein said. Overall, however, the analysis of AbaddonPOS points to increasing complexity in POS malware.

"AbaddonPOS appears to have features designed to resist analysis and encode stolen credit card data; much like malware as a general category, the sophistication continues to increase," Epstein said.

The increasing sophistication of POS malware is due partly to retailers' increased awareness of security, according to Ben Johnson, chief security strategist at Bit9+Carbon Black.

"Major retailers are finally embracing the inevitability of a cyber-attack, and as a result, POS malware authors are evolving to stay under the radar better than ever before," Johnson told eWEEK. "Today's POS malware is focusing on smaller segments of an organization's environment that often results in a smaller payoff for the attacker, but the attack is harder to detect."

Trustwave notes an increase in the number of malware families that use encryption to stay undetected, and the company is seeing increasingly automated threat delivery and data exfiltration capabilities, Merritt said.

"In our 2015 Global Security Report, we encountered more than 15 unique family groups of malware and more than 70 individual variants that targeted POS systems specifically, proving POS malware is still very much a high-value target for cyber-criminals," Merritt said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.