Malicious payloads are the parts of cyber attacks which cause harm. Malicious payloads can sit dormant on a computer or network for seconds or even months before they are triggered.
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In the context of a cyber-attack, a payload is the component of the attack which causes harm to the victim. Much like the Greek soldiers hiding inside the wooden horse in the tale of the Trojan Horse, a malicious payload can sit harmlessly for some time until triggered.
Attack vectors such as viruses, wurms, and malware can all contain one or more malicious payloads. Malicious payloads can also be found in email attachments, in fact Symantec has reported that one in every 359 emails in existence contains a malicious payload, and this ratio is trending upward.
Some typical examples of the way malicious payloads cause damage:
Attackers must first find a method to deliver the malicious payload onto the victim’s computer. Social engineering attacks and DNS hijacking are two common examples of payload delivery techniques.
Once a payload is in place, it will usually sit dormant until being executed. An attacker can select from many different ways to execute a malicious payload. Some common ways to execute a malicious payload:
As there are so many different methods for the distribution and execution of malicious payloads, there’s no simple panacea to mitigate them. In addition to being wary of phishing scams and other social engineering attacks, security measures should be taken whenever downloading files or receiving any kind of data from the Internet. A good rule of thumb is to always run a virus scan on downloaded files, even if they appear to be from a trusted source.