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Computer Experts Brace for Conficker Worm

A malicious software program that has infected millions of computers could enter a more menacing phase on Wednesday, from an outright attack to a quiet mutation that would further its spread.

 

Computer security experts who have analyzed the Conficker worm's code say it is designed to begin a new phase on April 1, and while it's unclear whether it will unleash havoc or remain dormant, its stubborn presence is rattling businesses with multimillion-dollar budgets to fight cyber crime.

 

Conficker, believed to reside on 2 million to 12 million computers worldwide, is designed to turn an infected PC into a slave that responds to commands sent from a remote server that controls an army of slave computers known as a botnet.

 

"It can be used to attack as well as to spy. It can destroy files, it can connect to addresses on the Internet and it can forward your e-mail," said Gadi Evron, an expert on botnets who helps governments protect against cyber crime.

 

FEARS OF ID THEFT

Botnets are a major worry because they can surreptitiously steal identities, log sensitive corporate information, credit card numbers, online banking passwords or other key data users of infected PCs type on their keyboards.

The information is often sold to criminal rings.

 

"Most malware we see in this day and age is very concerned with stealing information and making money for the author," said Dave Marcus, a researcher with security-software maker McAfee Inc's Avert Labs.

 

Experts said Conficker's authors might gradually change the way it communicates to avoid attention and to prevent companies from putting in place safeguards such as those used to fight the worm since it first surfaced last year.

Microsoft released a patch to protect against the worm late last year, while anti-virus software companies offer software to sniff it out and destroy it. Such tools can be expensive.

 

Technology research firm Gartner Inc estimates businesses will spend $13.6 billion on security software this year excluding costs for related labor, services and hardware. While some consumer anti-virus software packages are available for free, others run as high as $80 each.

 

Security experts suspect Conficker originated in the Ukraine, based on its code. The FBI is working to shut it down but a spokesman declined to comment on its investigation.

 

"The public is once again reminded to employ strong security measures on their computers," said Shawn Henry, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's cybercrimes division

 

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