What is a Bot Scam? Understanding & Preventing Botnet Attacks
In your mind, picture the kind of guy who commits identity theft. You’re probably imagining a shady guy in a dark room, working diligently to try and break into your account.
There are obviously crooks doing that manual hacking work. They’re not the biggest threat, though. Cybercrime is an industry unto itself, and anyone who uses a computer is at risk. That’s because, in the case of botnet attacks, cybercriminals may be using your machine to do their dirty work, without you even knowing it.
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What is a Botnet Attack?
- Botnet Attack
A botnet attack is an attempt by a hacker to conduct large-scale, automated cyberattacks through a massive network of hijacked, internet-connected devices, rather than manually controlling one single machine.
[noun]/bôt • net • ə • tək/
What we refer to as a bot is in reality a computer program used to perform automated tasks. Mostly, these tasks are routine, uncomplicated, and repetitive. Bots have legitimate uses; for example, search engines use bots to scour the internet and identify new or updated content on web pages.
An army of bots — called a botnet — can do the job considerably faster than humans, and with fewer errors. A botnet (short for robot network) is not a program itself, but rather a group of electronic devices that are all running the bot program.
Bots have legitimate uses. The problem occurs when scammers deploy botnets.
As with any other application of botnets, the goal is to do a lot of work with a minimal amount of human input required. With a botnet attack, the work in question could be brute force attacks to try and guess account passwords, or to overwhelm a server and conduct a DDoS attack.
How Do Hackers Create Bot Networks?
The first step in committing a botnet attack is creating the network itself. Hackers can infect targeted machines with malware through a variety of methods, enabling outside access. The end result is an entire network under the control of the attacker. Any device that connects to the internet could potentially be compromised, including:
- Mobile Phones
- Fitness Trackers
- Smart Home Devices
- Doorbell or Security Cameras
- Web Servers
- Network Routers
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In order to remain hidden from the device’s owner, the malware programs must be very small and take up minimal processing power. The crook will need to infect a large number of machines to get the job done. In theory, a dozen infected devices could be called a botnet, but botnets often consist of millions of linked devices.
Hackers can use a variety of methods to gain control of a device, including phishing, installing Trojan horse viruses, exploiting security vulnerabilities, and deploying social engineering attacks. As we’ll see, crooks can even leverage a botnet attack to infect machines for use in a different botnet attack.
After it has been hacked and infected, the “zombie” device will be linked back to the central botnet server. All the linked devices can then be operated remotely through Command and Control (C&C) software, enabling the attacker to send commands to all the compromised systems at once.
Herders don’t completely hijack devices. The hacker doesn’t want to assume total control; they actually want the zombie’s true owner to continue using their device as normal, while the scammer’s programs run in the background.
Common Botnet Attacks Strategies: How Do Hackers Use Botnets?
When building their botnet, hackers specifically try to gain security access at the administration level or higher. The greater access a zombie device has, the easier it is to infect other machines. Admin access also enables a wider range of potential attack types.
Some of the most common tactics deployed by hackers conducting botnet attacks include:
Phishing CampaignsBots are used to send mass emails, with the aim of tricking victims into revealing confidential information.
Mass-Mail SpammingSending bogus messages containing malicious links or attachments to capture data or expand the botnet.
DDoS AttacksA “distributed denial of service” attack uses bots to overload a server with request traffic, thereby making the site in question crash.
Social SpammingDistributing spam messages across online forums, review sites, or social media/blog post comments sections.
Brute Force AttacksUsing bots to try all possible combinations of a code (a 4-digit PIN or password, for example) until a working code is discovered.
Click FraudRepeatedly clicking on sponsored ads or affiliate links to drive up victims’ expenses or artificially inflate content popularity with phony likes.
Crypto MiningStealing processing power from devices in the network to perform cryptocurrency mining operations at the others’ expenses.
Understanding Botnet Attacks: Two Approaches
There are two common types of botnets hackers use. In one version, all the connected programs/machines are governed by a single machine (called a “bot herder”). In other words, one server is giving orders to each individual bot in the network.
For the hacker, the downside of this method is that the entire operation can be shut down from a single machine. This is generally not the preferred attack method, for obvious reasons.
In a decentralized botnet attack, each bot in the network shares responsibility for giving attack instructions. As long as the hacker can communicate with a single device in the network, they can still execute the attack through all the other linked devices. This greatly increases the difficulty of tracking the attack to its source.
In either situation, though, a single attacker with an extensive army of zombie bots can spread rapidly. They can target and infect every computer in a company, or even compromise entire networks.
Understanding Botnet Attacks: How Big Is the Problem?
In short: it’s big.
In 2021, more than 85% of companies experienced an attempted denial of service attack enabled by botnets. According to a report from Spamhaus, the number of Command and Control botnet attacks increased 23% from Q3 2021 to Q4 2021. And, the problem is getting worse, with 2.2 million botnet events reported in Q4 2022.
Botnet attacks do far more damage than single malware attacks, due to both the scale of the attacks and the number of interconnected devices involved. Identifying and eliminating malware from one device is like taking a single drop of water from a full bucket.
Imagine trying to empty that entire bucket, one drop at a time. While you’re doing that, though, there’s a faucet running at full blast, pouring water back into the bucket. Now, you can start to see the immensity of this threat.
Additional bots can be added to a network much faster than existing ones can be removed. Not only that, but attackers can adapt to new circumstances (such as increased security) and alter their attack in real time.
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How Can Businesses Prevent Botnet Attacks?
At the end of the day, botnet attacks are digital threats just like any other.
Generally speaking, digital security involves similar steps no matter what the specific type. That’s why organizations are better off employing an all-inclusive strategy, deploying everything from user education to maintaining the latest software and antivirus protection.
Here are a few simple best practices that organizations can adopt to defend themselves against botnet attacks:
Digital Security is an Ongoing Issue
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an individual user or responsible for an entire company network. In either case, the most effective way to mitigate the risk posed by botnet attacks is to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Training, vigilance, and up-to-date systems and virus protection tools are all strong methods of botnet takeovers. In fact, prevention is typically the best way to deal with any type of digital crime, including account takeover attempts and other fraud threats.
A comprehensive strategy can help identify threats before they happen and protect your business and revenue. To learn how we can help, speak to one of our experts today.
What is an example of a botnet attack?
One of the most well-known botnet attacks occurred in 2016 against the DNS provider Dyn. The hackers used a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack to overload and shut down several major sites — including Twitter, CNN, Reddit, Airbnb, and Netflix — with fraudulent traffic.
How does botnet attack work?
The first objective of the botnet is to build a network of internet-connected devices which are then infected with a small malicious software program, or bot. Once the hacker controls this “botnet” of infected devices, they can remotely command every device to simultaneously perform activities, such as DDoS attacks or large-scale phishing attempts.
What is a botnet attack in simple terms?
A botnet attack is any attack leveraging a botnet, or a network of devices infected by malware and linked together to perform the same task. All are under the control of a single attacking party, who uses thousands or millions of infected computers to accomplish more than would be possible with a single direct attack.
Is a botnet attack a DDoS attack?
Often, but not exclusively. Botnets are commonly used for DDoS attacks, but bot networks can be leveraged for other purposes such as account takeover or large-scale spam attacks.
How do hackers use botnets?
Botnets can be used for multiple types of attacks, such as click fraud. In this situation, the network of bots uses malicious software to divert web browser traffic to specific online advertisements. The browser believes the ad has been clicked on, meaning unearned affiliate fees will be paid to the hacker. By using a botnet, the hacker makes it appear as if the fraudulent clicks all come from different users.