Think you have to open an infected email attachment or download a file to your computer to acquire a malware infection? Not with the latest memory based malware. Drive-by attacks are taking place that do not need any user-interaction. These file-less malware infections  use malware that resides in the computer memory, and RAM memory is not scanned by most anti-virus programs.

The good news is attacks of this nature are rare. The bad news is the malware is being increasingly used by cybercriminals.

Fortunately, malware that resides in the memory doesn’t survive a reboot. Unfortunately, by the time your computer is rebooted, you may have already lost your sensitive data. How often do you reboot? At the end of your working day? That could potentially give a hacker a full 8 hours to record your keystrokes or download files to your computer. A lot of damage can be done in 8 hours.

There is another problem. Hackers are now creating memory-based malware that actually survives a reboot. The malware has been configured to hook into an API. When the computer is restarted, the malware is reloaded back into the RAM.

Memory-based malware exploits security vulnerabilities in outdated software

If a user is convinced to visit a malicious website, or responds to a spam email containing a link to one of those sites as part of a phishing campaign, their computer can be infected almost immediately. A user is usually directed to a web page containing an exploit kit: The Angler exploit kit for example. Code on the website probes the users’ browser for security vulnerabilities. Security vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash or Adobe Reader could be exploited, or Java, Silverlight or any number of plug-ins that the user has installed.

However, instead of the vulnerability being used to download a file to the hard drive, code is inserted into the memory. This does not trigger an Anti-Virus program because no files are downloaded to the computer. This allows the hacker to perform a drive-by cyberattack, stealing information quickly and silently. That information could include login names, passwords, bank account information, or anything entered via the keyboard.

These types of cyberattacks are not new. They have been possible for a long time, but cybercriminals have not favored memory based malware. Unfortunately, memory based malware is being used in exploit kits that are widely available online.

Sometimes a fast and stealthy attack is preferable to a long-term malware infection. If the aim is to avoid detection at all costs, then this is one of the easiest ways to gather intel or data without setting off any alarms. High-profile targets such as governments could be targeted, and they would be none the wiser as next to no trace of an attack is left by memory based malware.

Is an attack inevitable? Can nothing be done to prevent the installation of memory based malware?

The solution is not anti-virus software, but to prevent users from visiting a website that contains the exploit kit. It may not be possible to prevent a drive-by attack once a malicious site has been visited, but it is possible to avoid visiting that site in the first place. Hackers must still direct a user to the malicious site in order for an attack to be possible. There must also be security vulnerabilities in the browser that can be exploited.

To protect your computer from memory-based malware, you must ensure that your web browser and software are kept up to date with the latest security patches. As for avoiding malicious websites that contain the exploit, a web filtering solution should be used. A web filter can block users from visiting malicious sites, or from web ads from being displayed. Website adverts are often used as a method of getting users to visit a malicious website.

Phishing and spam emails containing links to malicious sites can be prevented from being delivered using a powerful spam filtering solution. SpamTitan Technologies offers both solutions. SpamTitan Anti-Spam software protects users by blocking spam emails from being delivered, while WebTitan software can be configured to prevent users from visiting malicious websites.

The threat landscape may be constantly changing, and new exploits used to compromise computers and steal data, but fortunately the risk can be effectively managed.