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McAfee's quarterly threat analysis shows increased hacker intelligence

The study shows that McAffee received 3.75 million reports of new threats and exploits in the first quarter of 2010, compared with four million in the same period last year.

Detailed analysis of the figures reveals, however, that targetted attacks on companies and their websites grew, as did phishing attacks using topical events such as earthquakes and volcano-driven travel problems.

Spam trends, meanwhile, show that email subjects vary greatly from country to country with diploma spam out of China and other Asian countries on the rise.

Earthquake news and other major 2010 events drove poisoned users' web searches during the quarter, and the report claims that US-based servers are now hosting the majority of new malicious URLs.

According to McAfee, threats on portable storage devices took the lead for the most popular malware. Autorun-related infections held the number one and three slots, due – in part – to the increased usage of portable storage devices.

Whilst spam rates remained steady during the quarter, McAffee says that their subjects vary considerably from country to country.

One of the report's biggest discoveries was that China, South Korea and Vietnam have the most significant diploma spam, which promotes the purchase of forged documents to establish qualifications for items such as jobs.

Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, meanwhile, had exceptional rates for delivery status notification spam indicating a possible issue with preventative mail-filtering capabilities.

Commenting on the report, Mike Gallagher, McAfee's chief technology officer, said: "Our latest threat report verifies that trends in malware and spam continue to grow at our predicted rates."

"Previously emerging trends, such as autorun malware, are now at the forefront. We were also surprised to find some geographic difference in spam related topics, such as the volume of diploma spam coming out of China", he said.

According to the McAffee report, attackers are leveraging major news events to poison internet searches. Haiti and Chile earthquake disasters led the list – numbers one and two, respectively. The Toyota recall, Apple iPad and NCAA march madness, meanwhile, followed.

Referred to as search engine manipulation, McAfee says that cybercriminals continue to use analytics and page-ranking logic to exploit hottest search terms and drive traffic to malicious websites.