Android malware is following in the footsteps of Windows malware with attackers adopting some of the same distribution and monetization techniques despite the major differences between the platforms.
The latest development is a mass email spam campaign being used to distribute Android scareware -- applications that use scare tactics to trick users into paying for worthless services. Researchers from security vendor FireEye identified one such campaign that was launched on Sept. 6 and is still ongoing.
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The rogue emails use themes like failed package delivery notifications from USPS or electronic wedding invitations that have long been used in phishing emails to spread Windows malware.
The emails contain links that lead to websites serving an Android package (APK) file called LabelReader.apk. This APK installs a known Android scareware application called FakeDefender that masquerades as a commercial Android security product.
"The malware deceives users into paying for cleanup of other non-existent infections on their device," said Vinay Pidathala, a senior security researcher at FireEye, Tuesday in a blog post. "In addition to displaying fake messages of infection, the APK also has the functionality to intercept incoming and outgoing phone calls as well as messages."
Using emails to distribute Android malware is not a new technique, but it is not a common one either. Most Android malware is still distributed through third-party app stores or Google Play, when malicious apps escape Google's detection.
In April, security researchers discovered a targeted email attack targeting Uyghur activists that was used to distribute an Android Trojan program. Unlike that attack, this new spam campaign aims at wide distribution of the malware and is not targeting a specific group of users.
"Spammed malware for Android is becoming more and more popular with cyber-criminals, because they can target more devices at once," said Bogdan Botezatu, a senior e-threat analyst at antivirus vendor Bitdefender, Tuesday via email. "This is already the third wave of spam leading to Android malware this year and we presume that cyber-criminals are still just running tests to see how well their threats perform before taking the business to the next level."
According to security researchers, this trend is likely to intensify and is driven in part by the fact that a large number of people now check their email from their smartphones instead from their computers.
"As client-side antispam solutions for Android are scarce, chances are that spam will make it more easily into the users' mobile inboxes," Botezatu said.
Users forget that their mobile devices are not as well protected as their PCs, which usually have anti-malware, firewalls, disk encryption and other security products installed, said Jason Steer, a senior architect at FireEye, via email.
Furthermore, legitimate third-party app stores are getting better at identifying malicious apps and using email to distribute Android malware bypasses the app stores entirely, he said.