A sophisticated computer worm spreading via AOL's AIM is setting up a botnet that may be difficult to combat, security researchers said.
The worm, known as W32.pipeline, propagates when AIM users click on a Web link that appears to have been sent to them by someone on their buddy list.
They receive a message along the lines of, "Hey, would it be okay if I upload this picture of you to my blog?" If the recipient clicks on the link, an executable file that looks like a JPEG will download into a Windows folder, according to researchers at security company FaceTime Communications.
The file can then execute a number of different attacks, said Chris Boyd, security research manager for FaceTime Security Labs and the researcher who discovered the worm. It can open up the email port on the PC and send out spam messages.
It can also install a variant of the "hacker defender" rootkit, which is widely deployed and difficult to remove.
One of the most dangerous aspects of the worm is that it can also connect to remote file upload sites, which Boyd believes the worm authors use as sort of staging sites where they can continuously download new infections. Once a computer is infected, the program will propagate using the same instant messaging method.
The worm is unique because the program seems to be able to contact a number of different sites around the globe randomly. FaceTime researchers had different results when running the same file.
"Previously, where we've seen something similar to this attempted, if one file is pulled offline or removed by an ISP, the whole chain goes down," Boyd said. "But this one, if one file goes missing or gets pulled down, it will potentially make a call to another file. It has quite a random aspect to it."
So far, he estimates that the botnet - a group of similarly infected computers that are remotely controlled - has 1,000 to 2,000 members. More computers may have been infected but not made part of the botnet.
The best defence is for AIM users to be wary of clicking on links. If a user receives an unexpected link from a buddy, the user can always reply to ask if they have sent the link, to make sure it is legitimate.
FaceTime has updated its virus protection software to prevent users from infection, and other anti-virus vendors may do the same. Infected AIM users can try to remove the worm but may have to wipe and reformat their drives to get rid of it.