Laptop features

Macs no longer safe from malware

Emma Baker
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Macs no longer safe from malware
Image: Intego

Once upon a time, Mac users could rest easy, safe in the knowledge that their devices were virtually immune to viruses and malware.

However, recent reports have suggested that there has been a significant increase in Mac malware infections, with one expert claiming that Apple devices are "far easier to infect than a Windows machine these days".

There has been a noticeable increase in posts about malware threats in Apple discussion forums, and in an anonymous interview with ZDNet.com blogger Ed Bott, an AppleCare support representative reported a surge in malware-related support calls, claiming call volumes to AppleCare were four or five times higher than normal.

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"It started with one call a day two weeks ago, now it's every other call. It's getting worse. And quick," they said.

The security threat appears in the form of a new "scareware" program called Mac Defender (which also goes by various other aliases such as Mac Protector). It infects users via a web pop-up or bogus Google Images result that convinces victims their machines are infected by a virus, and that the only way to fix it is by installing anti-virus software. Many browsers will allow the pop-up to download the malicious software automatically.

Once the user installs the software, porn-pop-ups will appear every few minutes, along with demands for payment to have bogus infections removed. The only way to stop the alerts is to pay.

Ty Miller, CTO of security firm Pure Hacking, said that Mac users were no longer safe from malware. While "Ninety-nine per cent of malware is still developed for the Windows platform", the increasing popularity of Apple devices is making them an attractive target for criminals.

While security and anti-virus software for Windows machines is commonplace, similar security software is rarely found on Apple devices. Miller said this left unsuspecting Apple users more vulnerable to malware attacks.

To make matters worse, Apple managers have reportedly instructed customer service staff not to help customers remove malware from their machines, for fear of "set[ting] the expectation to customers that we will be able to remove all malware in the future."

Security firm Intego said that users could easily be fooled by the Mac Defender malware due to its slick, professional design, and correct spelling and grammar.

But does this new security threat mean that Macs are now doomed to infinite hacks from web demons? Of course not.

Anthony Agius, founder of the Australian Apple community site MacTalk, pointed out that, while there had been an increase in Mac malware, the number of people using Apple devices has also risen.

"The latest MAC Defender trojan has been more "successful" than previous attempts. People seem to be falling for it and allowing it to be installed on their computers much easier than in the past," Agius said.

"The amount and seriousness of malware is still exponentially lower than on Windows," he added.

But while this may be so, Matthew Powell, editor of MacTheMag.com, said Mac users should be no more or less complacent about security than any other computer users, reminding all users that "security software and common sense are handy things to have."

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