Remember the old rule of the thumb regarding email and viruses? "As long as you don't start the attachment, you are safe."
The computer world has evolved since then... Read on!
Up to the release of MS-Word 6, the line between safe and unsafe attachments in your email was simple: if the file was executable (i.e. did it end with .exe, .com or .bat), then it was not safe. Was it is a text file, a document, a spreadsheet, then it was safe to open.
MS-Word 6 introduced a new feature: A scripting language in the word-processor, and it was installed with scripting enabled by default. There were a couple of issues with it:
The thin border between safe and unsafe attachments was breached: documents could suddenly have executable payload.
The first Word virus was the Concept Word Macro virus. It didn't do much besides displaying a dialogbox with a "1" on the screen when an infected document was loaded and infecting other documents with itself. It didn't do any damage further, it was just annoying.
The next feature was the capability of the Word scripting language to interact with the MS Outlook mail reader. Where a Word viruses up to that point was only able to propagate slowly via shared Word documents, it suddenly had access to a faster path: It could send itself via Outlook to everybody in the address book on the infected computer, and with a little bit of luck the recipients would open the Word document and the infection would spread.
Beside the technical capabilities to get this virus spreading, the virus needed to convince the receiver that it was safe to open the attachment. Welcome to the social engineering department. The first step is to make sure the receiver trusts the source. Since the virus gets the receivers' address from the address book of the user whose Word document is infected, that means there is some kind of trust relationship between the sender and receiver, and thus most likely also between the receiver and the sender. The second step is to use a catchy text in the body while referring to the attachment, for example by referring to the document as a shared secret between the sender and receiver.
The first virus which successfully combined these two issues was the Melissa virus. When a user opens an infected document, the virus is activated and it infects the NORMAL.DOT file so all newly created documents will contain the virus; sends itself in an email with the following text to the first 50 people in the adddress book of the infected user:
Subject: Important Message From username Here is that document you asked for ... don't show anyone else ;-)'
It is hard to resist emails with this text, even if you are made suspicious by the fact that you got five of them already, all from different sources...
When displaying emails, most of the modern browsers only show the text and/or the HTML parts of the email. The last line of defense with regard to email based viruses was the fact that users needed to open the attachment before the virus became active.
If you could execute code in the HTML part of a document, you would be able to infect the computer without having to open an attachment.
So if you were able to make an HTML message with ActiveX components which bypassed the ActiveX security, you would be able to create a file on disk from just viewing the email message.
The BubbleBoy virus was the first virus which contained ActiveX code which bypassed the security and wrote a file to disk to the startup directory of Windows. That was all the email did. But when the computer was restarted, the file was started and the the virus started to propagate to everybody in the address book of the infected user.
After these viruses, the users knew they had to keep an eye open for attachments which were executables, and Word and other MS-Office related documents. Luckily, images and audio files (GIFs and MP3s for example) are still safe. So a quick visual inspection of the name of the attachment should tell if it is safe or not.
MS-Outlook, for example, doesn't by default display the full filename. So an attachment with the name test.doc would be displayed as a test with a Word document icon above it. And an attachment with the name test.gif.exe would be displayed as test.gif with an executable icon above it. If the user only checks the filename displayed, he would see the image filename and assume it was safe to open. Of course he would know immediately know he had ran a program instead of having opened an image, but the damage is done.
The payload of the Badtrans virus appeared under the filenames of README.TXT.exe and s3msong.MP3.pif. When the extension wasn't shown, the filenames looked innocent. When opening the attachment the executable was run. To soothe the user into thinking that the application hadn't ran, it showed a dialog box saying "File data corrupt: probably due to bad data transmission or bad disk access".
By sending infected emails through the mail application on the infected computer, MS-Outlook creates some side effects:
To overcome these problems, viruses started to be designed with their own SMTP engines. This way the ISP would be circumvented and would it be harder for the sender to find out where the infected emails were coming from.
Because the sender address could be faked now, more social engineering tricks can be performed. For example, email can be faked to come from the MAILER-DAEMON, which is normally computer generated email coming from SMTP gateways informing you that the email sent couldn't be delivered, and often attaching the full original email to the bounced message. Opening the attachment is one of the ways to find out which email wasn't able to be delivered.
To counter these kind of viruses, ISPs started to block all outgoing SMTP sessions except the ones coming from and to their own SMTP gateways.
The Frethem virus was the first virus with its own SMTP engine on board.
The MyDoom virus was one of the first viruses with its own SMTP engine on board and which also sends emails to common names (bill, john, mike etc) of target domains. The faked sender addresses will get the undeliverable messages.
The virus scanner on both the SMTP gateway of the ISP and the computer which retrieves the email should be able to open the attachments to check for viruses. But what if the attachment is an encrypted ZIP file and the key to open it is given in the email? Unfortunately, there is no clear method to prevent problems with these kind of email viruses.
The Mimail-M virus had an encrypted ZIP archive attached:
For unzip archiver download WinZip: http://download.winzip.com/winzip81.exe Password for archive is "kiss". Attached file: wendy.zip