The Ultimate Manual To Botnet Attacks

Recent technological advancements have created exciting new opportunities for business owners and customers. Unfortunately, this has come with adverse effects—cybercriminals have more opportunities to leverage malicious techniques for gaining unauthorized access, stealing data, and leaking sensitive data.

Botnet attacks are one of the many cyberattacks that can cause absolute chaos for their victim sites. This Nira guide will take a more detailed look at botnet attacks, along with how they work, and discuss effective strategies to prevent botnet attacks and protect your systems.

Let’s get started.

What Is a Botnet Attack Anyway?

Botnets are a network of interconnected devices controlled by malicious agents to carry out cyberattacks and scams. The compromised devices get turned into “zombie bots” for a botnet controller, allowing the latter to easily infiltrate systems, automate mass attacks, and cause other disruptions.

Botnet attacks are a type of large-scale cyber attacks carried out by malware-infected botnets. These are a much greater threat because they let the malicious agent carry out a large number of actions at the same time, including data theft, sending spam, compromising confidential info, perpetuating ad fraud, or readying the launch of the more dangerous distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

How Botnet Attacks Work

One of the main reasons why botnet attacks are dangerous is because they are built to enhance, automate, and accelerate the malicious agent’s ability to carry out larger attacks. A small team of hackers or even an individual hacker can carry out many actions on the local devices to acquire tons of additional machines and leverage them for more efficient operations head—all with minimal little cost and time investment.

Here are the three stages that need to be completed to initiate a botnet attack:

Stage 1: Preparing the Botnet Army

The first stage is about expanding reach, where the malicious agent tries to infect as many connected devices as possible after creating a botnet. It uses the computing power of the infected devices for tasks that cannot be seen by the device owner. 

That said, the fraction of bandwidth taken from a single machine isn’t enough, which is why the botnet combines millions of devices to carry out large-scale attacks.

Botnets are created either by exploiting security gaps in software and websites or through phishing emails. Generally, malicious hackers deploy botnets through a Trojan horse virus.

Stage 2: Building Connections

Once the botnet hacks a device, it infects it with a specific malware that connects a device back to the central botnet server. This enables it to connect all the devices within the bot network, after which it prepares them to execute large-scale botnet attacks.

A bot herder leads the collective of compromised devices with remote commands, driving their actions.

Stage 3: Launching the Botnet Attack

In the final stage, all infected bots allow the bot herder access to admin-level operations, including:

  • Collecting and stealing user data without permission
  • Secretly watching user activities
  • Performing DDoS attacks
  • Launching brute force attacks
  • Reading and writing system data
  • Crypto mining

The above list is by no means exhaustive but required to give you a general idea of the damages of botnet attacks.

In the nutshell, the bot herder initiates the attack by infecting several devices with malicious code, which acts as the botnet. These devices will then take over and launch the final cyberattack. Due to the distributor nature of the attack, you cannot trace the bot herder easily, even if you trace the cyberattack back.

Botnet Attack Type #1: Distributed Denial of Service Attacks

A botnet DDoS attack is unfortunately fairly common. Here, DDOS floods a service with enough web traffic and requests, overwhelming it to the point that it crashes or interrupts service. 

The bot herder controls the botnet remotely, often via intermediate machines known as the command and control (C2) servers. The individual uses various hidden channels and social media platforms to communicate with a C2 server.

This allows botnets servers to communicate and cooperate with other botnets servers, creating a P2P network controlled by either single or multiple bot herders.

Botnet Attack Type #2: Brute Force Attack

Cybercriminals often launch a brute force attack when they want to uncover target passwords.

Under this method, the bot heard uses a rapid, repetitive password guessing technique. During a brute force attack, malware directly interacts with the affected service for real-time feedback on passcode attempts. This cyberattack makes use of the credentials or personally identifiable information (PII) for password attempts.

Botnet Attack Type #3: Spambots and Phishing

Botnets allow easy distribution of malware via phishing emails. As botnets are automated and have a network of user-controlled devices, shutting down a phishing campaign can be very difficult.

Similarly, spambots harvest emails from websites, chat rooms, forums, and anyplace else where users enter their email addresses. The emails are then used to create fake accounts to send spam messages. In fact, over 80% of spam messages are thought to come from botnets.

5 Steps to Prevent Botnet Attacks

In this section, we’ll review the different steps you can take to protect your organization against botnet attacks. 

Let’s take a look.

Step 1: Regularly Update All Systems

Botnets exploit unpatched vulnerabilities present in networks’ machines to penetrate and compromise networks. It’s critical to regularly update systems and ensure new updates are installed as soon as they are made available. This includes applications, software solutions, and OS.

If you cannot set up automatic updates on all your systems due to whatever reason, schedule regular updates at least once a week. Extend the same courtesy to your company’s hardware, especially legacy devices, making sure they are updated periodically, even when no longer in use.

Step 2: Teach Employees About Cybersecurity Best Practices

Build a company culture around the importance of cybersecurity by educating employees about safe online browsing and data security right from the beginning. Print an educational pamphlet and have the new hire take a test about cybersecurity best practices during the first week of their employment.

For your current employees, you can create a monthly company cybersecurity newsletter and share tips on staying safe online. Give users the latest updates on cybersecurity threats all the while keeping the knowledge transfer informative and engaging.

Penetration testing is also a great alternative. It’s a fake phishing attack created to identify which employees fall for it and click on the fake links and download fake files. Employees that fall for these phishing attempts can be sent through cyber training again.

Step 3: Invest in the Right Software

Experts recommend downloading anti-malware and content filtering software to bolster protection against botnets. These software tools are designed to identify and remove malware threats from your network by searching for any suspicious snippets of code. As soon as the system recognizes the code and confirms it as suspicious, the software will immediately flag it.

Anti-malware software also detects cyber threats by recognizing code that attempts abnormal behavior. For example, a snippet of code that tries to gain admin rights to your computer without asking for your permission will be flagged by anti-malware software.

What’s more, you can customize anti-malware software to fit your needs depending on whether you need it for business or home use.

The same ideology stands for content and web filtering software that assists in blocking malware threats and vulnerabilities. You can use the software to restrict internet access to prevent users from accessing inappropriate websites (e.g., illegal streaming sites) that may contain malware.

Step 4: Avoid Opening Suspicious Links and Websites

Malicious agents expertly create websites that might look normal at first glance but are actually laden with malware-ridden links and attachments. When navigating the internet, avoiding these links and websites to protect your computer from getting infected with a botnet is your responsibility.

For starters, if a website looks or sounds too good to be true, don’t trust it. For example, if you see a link to a website offering free tools and software that are otherwise expensive, don’t open it. It probably contains malware links. 

You also need to be careful of phishing emails that look and feel genuine, but most certainly aren’t. For instance, you may receive an email from Microsoft’s support team asking you to click a link to verify your credentials. 

To check the authenticity of such emails, you can try accessing the web page described in the email by going to the actual website instead of directly clicking on the link. Another option is to pay attention to the email. Check whether it’s from the official customer support of the company.

Step 5: Perform a Network Assessment

Conduct a thorough audit of the network infrastructure every quarter to strengthen your network security. This will allow you to identify and eliminate security gaps and build a roadmap to achieve better network security and prevent botnet attacks.

The whole purpose of the network assessment is to identify processes that can put your business at risk of non-compliance with data privacy regulations. This involves evaluating:

  • Backup processes: Find out how often data is backed up in your organization, where it is backed up, and whether this process has been automated to remove the possibility of human error.
  • Hardware and software settings: Carefully analyze security settings to weed out inefficient processes that could be putting your network at risk. Make the necessary changes to patch up these vulnerabilities and gaps as soon as possible.
  • Security management protocol: If you have a team of internal employees managing network security, try to spot any operational inefficiencies that could potentially lead to security threats that haven’t been promptly identified and mitigated. 

Consider using a managed service provider if your team is finding the process overwhelming or doesn’t know where to start.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira