Malicious advertisements made their way last week to almost two dozen popular websites and used browser-based exploits to infect computers with CryptoWall, a nasty file-encrypting ransomware program.
The malicious advertising, or malvertising, campaign was discovered by researchers from security firm Proofpoint and had an impact on visitors to at least 22 popular websites including Yahoo's Finance and Fantasy Sports sites, realestate.aol.com, theatlantic.com, 9gag.com and match.com.
"All told, more than 3 million visitors per day were potentially exposed to this malvertising campaign," the Proofpoint researchers said in a report published Wednesday.
As in the case of most malvertising attacks, the sites themselves were not compromised. Instead, attackers managed to push malicious ads through at least three major advertising networks and exchanges: The Rubicon Project, Right Media (now Yahoo Ad Exchange) and OpenX.
"Proofpoint has proactively attempted to provide information to these networks, and as of Saturday, October 18th, we believe these networks to have taken action to address the issue," the Proofpoint researchers said.
Yahoo, The Rubicon Project and OpenX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The malicious ads, which were impersonating legitimate ones for brands like Microsoft Bing, Fancy and Case Logic, used an attack tool called Flash Pack to silently execute exploits for vulnerabilities in outdated browser plug-ins. When successful, the exploits installed a ransomware program called CryptoWall 2.0 on users' computers.
CryptoWall encrypts files with popular extensions -- movies, images, documents, etc. -- that are stored on local hard disk drives or mapped network shares. It then asks victims to pay a ransom in Bitcoin cryptocurrency.
Security researchers from Dell SecureWorks estimated that CryptoWall infected more than 600,000 computers between March and August, earning cybercriminals over US$1 million.
CryptoWall is very destructive because it uses strong encryption and leaves users with almost no option to reliably recover their files aside from paying ransom. Restoring the files from backups is a possibility, if those backups weren't also affected by the infection.
The Proofpoint researchers tracked transactions to the Bitcoin wallet addresses used by CryptoWall in this new attack and determined that they received at least 65 bitcoins daily, or around US$25,000.
The malicious ads "passed through multiple parties including exchanges, optimizers, ad networks and web sites, all without detection at any step," the researchers said. "It is clear that site owners and ad distributors need to invest in more advanced tools to detect malicious advertisements that are embedded in the ad stream. In particular, site owners cannot and should not assume that the ad networks are taking care of this for them, and should proactively seek tools for online brand protection."
In order to protect themselves against malvertising attacks and drive-by exploits in general, users should keep the software installed on their computers up to date, especially their operating systems, browsers and browser plug-ins like Flash Player, Java, Silverlight and Adobe Reader.
Some browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox allow users to enable click-to-play for plug-in based content, which can stop the automatic execution on exploits that target browser plug-ins.