Ransomware, PUPs, Vulnerabilities: a Look at What’s Putting You at Risk

Every quarter McAfee  releases a report on the cybersecurity issues confronting consumers, business partners, and the public. Produced by McAfee Labs, the McAfee Labs Threats Report covers threats to both mobile and desktop devices. But, as you’ll soon see, the distinction between mobile and desktop threats is slowly becoming irrelevant thanks to three key issues: potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), ransomware, and unpatched app vulnerabilities. Let’s take a quick dive into these areas and learn how you can protect yourself from each threat.

Potentially Unwanted Programs

The first threat, PUPs, revolves around apps and programs that change system settings and gather personal information without a user’s knowledge. Although this sounds inherently malicious, not all PUPs are bad. They reside in a tricky “gray zone” in which developers sometimes have reasonable justifications for their behavior and sometimes do not. But the basic issue remains the same regardless of intentions: PUPs modify system settings, browser settings, covertly collect user information, and go to lengths to disguise their presence. What you need to know is that your latest program or application may be collecting more information about you than you expected.

For mobile devices, PUPs usually take the form of knock-off apps. That is, they emulate and piggyback on the appearance and purpose of legitimate, popular apps while gaining permissions and collecting data on your activities. Often, they try to push you to other services or, in some cases, install software that directs your device towards ads based on your browsing history.

Because of their ambiguous nature, PUPs are becoming a troubling area for the cybersecurity community. They’re difficult to define and analyze. But for consumers like you, there are a few things you can do. The first is to keep an eye out for suspicious programs that are almost, but not quite, like a well-known and popular application. For desktop and laptop computers, you should avoid both app packages and third-party app stores.


Ransomware, the report’s second topic area, has been an area of concern for some time. While ransomware—malicious programs that restrict access to your files and programs until a ransom is paid— fell in the third quarter of 2014, the threat experienced resurgence last quarter, when the number of new ransomware samples grew by 155%. That means there are more than two million ransomware samples in the world right now. It also means that more people are at risk of losing access to their devices and data than ever before.

Unlike other malicious programs, ransomware, once installed, is quite obvious. Your device, be it a laptop, desktop or mobile phone, will show a pop-up that notifies you of blocked access. In order to regain access to your device, documents, or both, the ransomware will then demand a—you guessed it—ransom. Do not give in to this request.

You can avoid falling victim to ransomware programs by using a comprehensive security solution like McAfee LiveSafe™ service and avoiding suspicious files and apps. You can also avoid paying ransom for your files by keeping backups of your documents on a cloud backup service or on a hard drive that isn’t connected to your computer. For your mobile devices, keeping a clean backup helps, as does limiting what permissions your apps have access to.

Mobile Vulnerabilities Go Unaddressed

The final highlight from McAfee Labs, vulnerabilities on mobile devices, have been in the limelight for some time. But in Q4, the topic grew more complex: Along with a 14% growth in the number of mobile malware samples in the wild, we’re also seeing app developers ignoring known vulnerabilities when securing their app communications. They’re releasing and maintaining apps with troubling cryptographic vulnerabilities that could help cybercriminals establish man-in-the-middle attacks.

A man-in-the-middle attack, or MITM, happens when an attacker intercepts messages and data sent between a victim and its intended recipients. Cybercriminals do this by abusing a complex network of certificates used to validate traffic, essentially setting up a detour route through the attacker’s home turf so they can monitor information. The sought after information often includes usernames and passwords—though data like geolocation and browsing habits can be included too.

But here’s the thing with MITM attacks on both mobile and desktop devices: They can be fixed fairly easily, but they often aren’t. There is no good reason for this. Developers need to step up their security game and knock out any known vulnerabilities that could harm consumers.

Thankfully, there are steps users can take to stay safe on their mobile devices:

  • Use known app stores. Sticking to known app stores, like the Apple App Store or Google Play, will go a long way to assuring both quality and maintained apps.
  • Limit app use. Users should use apps only when they’re connected to known and trusted Wi-Fi networks like the ones you’d find at your home or work. Limiting your exposure elsewhere can help keep your passwords private.
  • Enable multifactor authentication. I’ve discussed the benefits of two-factor authentication before, but it bears repeating: Having your online presence verified by both something you know (like a password) and something you have (like a smartphone) is one of the strongest methods of preventing unauthorized access to your account.

And, of course, stay on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats by following @McAfee_Home and myself on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.

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