Companies were getting hit on average with "unknown malware" around 53 times a day in 2013, according to Check Point's annual analysis of threat data collected from about a thousand enterprise customers.
Check Point defines 'unknown malware" as malicious code that exploits a known vulnerability or weakness, but can't be detected at the time of its discovery by up-to-date anti-virus or intrusion-prevention systems.
"The window of effectiveness for an unknown malware is often only 2 to 3 days, because its existence in the wild give antivirus vendors time to detect it on their global networks and build signatures for it," Check Point states in its annual security report out today.
Check Point says it distinguishes "unknown malware" from "zero-day malware" in that zero-days exploit unknown and unreported vulnerabilities for which there is no patch while "unknown malware" strikes at known vulnerabilities.
Check Point's Security Report 2014 says unknown malware appears to be growing because attackers are automating its creation and then targeting organizations around the world, typically for financial gain.
The analysis of data Check Point has from 2013 indicates most of the unknown malware was delivered to targeted customers via e-mail, typically embedded in attachments but was detected in Check Point's sandboxing technology, including its threat-emulation sensors. The data was gathered between June and December of last year.
About 35% of the time, the unknown malware was embedded in PDFs to target unpatched versions of Adobe Readers, 33% of the time in EXE formats, 27% in archive formats, mostly ZIP, and 5% was Microsoft Office, with Word being the most prevalent.
The Global Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), an international organization that tracks e-mail phishing trends globally, this week published its global phishing trend statistics for the last half of 2013. The APWG said phishing had especially exploded in China.
"Chinese phishers were responsible for 85% of the domain names that were registered for phishing," the APWG states in this report. Chinese phishers seem to be mainly intent on victimizing the growing online population in the country. APWG says it identified 22,831 domain names believed to be registered maliciously by phishers. "This is the highest number of malicious domain registrations we have ever counted in any of our semi-annual surveys, which stretch back seven years to 2007," the APWG notes.
Across Check Point's own sampling, one-third of the 996 companies that Check Point supports through its security tools downloaded at least one infected file or unknown malware, Check Point states.
In order to ensure their numerous malware variants are undetected, attackers are utilizing "specialized obfuscation tools called crypters,'" Check Point notes in its report. Not to be confused with encryption-based ransomware like "Cryptolocker," crypters are obfuscation tools designed to make malware hard to detect through the use of various encryption and encoding schemes, Check Point notes. In another tactic, malware called HIMAN was found in late 2013 to be designed to look like a Kaspersky Lab antivirus executable, for example, Check Point notes.
The rise of unknown malware means alternatives to traditional anti-virus protection have to be considered, such as automated malware sandboxing for threat emulation that can check for unknown malware by exploding attachments to discover evidence of malicious code, Check Point notes.
That trend, too, is growing among vendors. Symantec this week launched a security initiative called "Advanced Threat Prevention" in which it says it's partnering with Check Point, in addition to Cisco and Palo Alto Networks, to receive updates around unknown and zero-day malware in order to provide additional defense to its endpoint security products.
Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: [email protected]