Malware originally created to steal credit card data, is now being used to artificially inflate the number of "likes" and followers on Instagram accounts to help generate more buzz around products and brands..
The infamous Zeus malware, which has infected hundres of millions of PCs since it surfaced more than five years ago, has been modified by cyber-criminals to generate fake likes and followers on Instagram, which can kick-start marketing campaigns and help brands create a buzz around their products.
The fake likes on Instagram are said to be sold in packs of 1,000 on underground internet forums where cyber-criminals also sell credit card numbers and personal information stolen from users' PCs, according to security firm RSA, who spoke to Reuters.
RSA revealed that 1,000 Instagram followers can be bought for as little as £9.50 and 1,000 Instagram likes for £19. Similarly, 1,000 credit card numbers can cost as little as £3.80.
Instagram defended itself by stating that its technical systems detect fake accounts and likes and try to flag and block them. "We work hard to limit spam on our service, and prohibit the creation of accounts through unauthorized or automated means," an Instagram spokesperson told Mashable.
"We employ robust systems to address accounts compromised through malware and phishing, which helps keep the number of fake accounts low," the spokesperson added.
The modified Zeus virus is the first piece of malicious software uncovered to date that has been used to post false "likes" on a social network, according to experts who track cyber crime.
Fraudsters most commonly manipulate "likes" using automated software programs.
Zeus has been around for more than five years and has infected hundreds of millions of PCs in that time. The modified malware boosting Instagram likes is controled by a central sever - known as a command and control server - which can order the infected PCs to like whichever account has paid for the service.
The fact that the likes and followers for Instagram cost more than credit card numbers clearly indicates the level of importance social marketing has for brands.
"People perceive importance on what is trending," stated Victor Pan, senior data analyst with Wordstream to Reuters. "It is the bandwagon effect."
The same Zeus malware was used in 2010 to open bank accounts and flush millions of dollars towards Eastern Europe, according to ABC News. The FBI said the European cybercrime ring stole around £44.7 million from US banks. Five suspects from Ukraine were also questioned regarding the cyber crime.