Keep the latest worm infestation off your PC

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

It’s been a hellacious week for security admins all over the world: the polymorphic worm known as Downadup, Conficker, and Kido has infected millions of computers.

Fortunately, you can scan, scour, and secure your systems by following four relatively simple steps.

Remember the patch that Microsoft released suddenly — “out of cycle” in the parlance — back in October 2008? Windows Secrets followed suit with an out-of-cycle news bulletin about the patch on Oct. 24. Susan Bradley recommended that readers immediately install the update described in MS08-067 (KB article 958644) to protect against “a remote-code attack that could spread wildly across the Internet.”

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Just as Susan predicted, the remote-code attacks started appearing shortly thereafter. On Oct. 26, Christopher Budd of the Microsoft Security Response Center posted the following in the MSRC blog:

“We are aware that people are working to develop reliable public exploit code for the vulnerability. We are aware of discussion about code posted on a public site, but our analysis has shown that code always results in a denial of service, to demonstrate the vulnerability. So far, we’ve not seen evidence of public, reliable exploit code showing code execution.”

By mid-November, the Microsoft Malware Protection Center (MMPC) said in a blog posting that it had collected “over 50 distinct exploits of this vulnerability.” However, MMPC said the instances were very limited: “We’re getting a very small number of customer reports for these attacks.”

Then Conficker.A hit the fan. (McAfee and Microsoft call the worm “Conficker,” Sophos uses the name “Confick,” and Symantec and F-Secure call it “Downadup”; but it’s the same virus.) By Nov. 25, MMPC was raising the alarm on its blog in an attempt to get individuals and — especially — organizations to install the MS08-067 patch, which stops Conficker.A dead in its tracks.

At this point, the Conficker furor should’ve died down and the worm been relegated to the history books. Two inexorable forces, however, combined in early January 2009 to give the worm new life: system admins who weren’t applying key patches and a ferociously fecund variant called Conficker.B.

UPDATE 2009-03-30: In his March 30, 2009, Top Story, editorial director Brian Livingston describes how to prepare for Conficker’s activation date.

How Conficker differs from other worms

In the not-so-good old days, Conficker.A arrived as a Trojan: in order to infect a PC, somebody had to run an infected program on the machine. It could also try to hit your machine directly, but any sort of firewall would thwart that attack. If the infected system was attached to a network, Conficker.A used the hole (that MS08-067 closes) to spread to other computers on the network. This modus operandi is kinda boring but moderately effective.

Conficker.B uses the Conficker.A approach, plus a whole lot more — as a “blended threat,” it’s an equal-opportunity infecter. The MMPC’s TechNet blog offers an excellent, graphical overview of the ways that Conficker.B can get into your network. Here are the main attack vectors:
  • Conficker.B uses the old Conficker.A approach: simple Trojans that arrive via e-mail or by downloading an infected program.

  • Once a PC on a network is infected, Conficker.B reaches across the network to see whether any of its PCs have not yet patched the MS08-067 hole. After infecting these unprotected PCs, Conficker plugs the MS08-067 hole, presumably so other, similar worms can’t get in. What a sneaky buzzard!

  • If Conficker.B finds that it can’t get into a computer via the MS08-067 hole, it tries to break in by using the standard Windows admin account, entering each of 248 common passwords. This weak password list (which you’ll find under the Analysis tab) includes such all-time favorites as admin, mypass, test, foo, 1111, and many others you may have seen before.

  • Once Conficker.B gains entry to a networked machine, it drops a copy of itself onto the target’s hard drive and creates a scheduled job that runs the infected file. Conficker.B also loads itself onto all accessible shared folders. Ho-hum.

  • Finally, Conficker.B scans and infects all removable devices on the system, including USB drives and external hard drives.

That last step intrigues me the most because the person or persons who wrote Conficker gave the USB-drive-infection routine a diabolical little twist. As you might expect, the infection comes in the form of an autorun.inf file, which (usually) runs automatically when the USB stick gets stuck in the computer. But the social engineering in that autorun.inf file is quite remarkable.

The worm’s tricky twist on autorun.inf

Bojan Zdrnja at the SANS Internet Storm Center detailed in this blog post how Conficker.B’s autorun.inf file works. To see the brilliance in the deception, it helps to understand how autorun.inf files usually work.

Let’s say I put an autorun.inf file on an empty USB drive that includes the following command:


Then I stick a file called ACoolProgram.exe on the USB drive. When I plug that USB drive into a bone-stock Vista machine, I get the AutoPlay notification message shown in Figure 1.

Autoplay reacting to a normal autorun.inf
Figure 1. Vista’s Autoplay displaying the results of a normal autorun.inf file.

On the other hand, if I wanted to get tricky, I could change autorun.inf so it takes over the default wording on Vista’s Autoplay dialog. This autorun.inf file does that very thing:

Action=Open folder to view files

When this file is placed on a USB drive that’s inserted into a stock Vista PC, the AutoPlay notification shown in Figure 2 appears.

Autoplay reacting to a fancy autorun.inf
Figure 2. Vista’s AutoPlay with a slightly altered autorun.inf file.

Note that the altered file pastes an icon into the AutoPlay notification that looks just like a folder icon. The autorun.inf file can say it’s going to open a folder when in fact it’s going to run an executable program.

When Conficker.B infects a USB drive, it creates just this type of autorun.inf file that pops up an AutoPlay notification identical to Figure 2. Clever — and for PC users, scary. Amazingly, this bit of autorun.inf infectious sleight-of-hand also works on the beta version of Windows 7.

Guide to cleaning and preventing Conficker

As of Jan. 16, 2009, F-Secure estimates in its blog that the number of Conficker-infected PCs jumped from 2.4 million to 8.9 million in just four days. Unfortunately, that number has been increasing by a million infections a day.

I don’t blindly accept F-Secure’s analysis, nor that of any other security-software vendor, but it has become quite apparent that an enormous number of PCs have caught this worm.

Even though a Conficker-infected PC may not be able to access — and Conficker probably disabled the PC’s automatic-update function, too — getting rid of the worm is surprisingly easy.
  • Step 1: Check your passwords. If you have an administrator account with an easily guessed password, change it. Microsoft provides a guide to strong passwords that includes a link to the company’s online password checker. If somebody other than you controls your computer’s admin password, make sure that person understands the gravity of this situation.

  • Step 2: Make sure you’ve installed the patch described in MS08-067. Open Control Panel’s Add or Remove Programs list to ensure that KB 958644 has been installed. Click Start (plus Run in XP), type appwiz.cpl, and press Enter. In XP, make sure Show updates at the top of the window is checked. In Vista, click View installed updates on the left to see all of your PC’s patches.

    The update in question was probably installed in late October or November of last year; look for Security Update for Microsoft Windows (KB958644). If this patch isn’t installed, browse to Microsoft’s Download Center to retrieve and install it. If your PC is blocked from visiting this site, use a noninfected PC to download the patch to a removable medium and install the update on the wormed PC from that device.

  • Step 3: Run Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT). The latest version of this Microsoft tool identifies and removes all of the Conficker variants I’ve heard about. The easiest way to get MSRT is through Windows Update, but if you can’t get through to that service on the infected PC, borrow a computer and download the tool from Microsoft’s site.

  • Step 4: Disable AutoPlay. If Figure 2 doesn’t convince you of the risk of using Windows’ AutoPlay feature, nothing will. Simply stated, you don’t need AutoPlay that much. Follow the advice in Scott Dunn’s Top Story from the Nov. 8, 2007, issue for comprehensive instructions to disable AutoPlay.
Those four steps will ensure that your PC isn’t one of the million — or nine million, or 12 million — machines currently playing host to the Conficker worm and its variants.

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows Vista All-In-One Desk Reference For Dummies and Windows Vista Timesaving Techniques For Dummies — explore what you need to know about Vista in a way that won’t put you to sleep. He and Ed Bott also wrote the encyclopedic Special Edition Using Office 2007.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-01-22:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.