You’ve probably got a mouse connected to your computer, but you’d better hope that you don’t have a RAT lurking inside one. Why? Because unlike your mouse – which lets you interact with your operating system — a RAT is a tool that allows someone else to control what’s going on.
RAT stands for Remote Access Tool, and there are legitimate uses for these programs. System administrators use them to repair problems in far away offices. Tech-savvy sons and daughters use them to do the same for their parents.
But there’s another kind of RAT, and it’s a much more dangerous piece of software. Typically, RAT malware is dropped onto a system that’s been compromised by a Trojan. It nestles itself deep within the operating system’s files and then waits for further instructions from its criminal overlord.
If there’s something horrible a piece of malware can do to a computer, a RAT can make it happen. Typically, these dangerous pests start by crippling any anti-malware software that might be running on a computer. Lowering the defenses makes it easier for those who take remote control to impose their will.
After that, there’s virtually no limit to what the criminal at the controls can do. He or she can move and delete files and folders, change your wallpaper, and kill running programs. Keystrokes can be recorded and passwords stolen. Worse still, the possibilities don’t end at fooling with your computer’s software.
A full-featured RAT also allows control of your system’s hardware. Your mouse and keyboard can be disabled so that they don’t accidentally mess with remotely-delivered keystrokes. Your printer could be made to print until it runs out of ink.
And here’s perhaps the scariest possibility of all: if you have a webcam, the attacker can turn it on and stream live video and audio from your computer. It’s the kind of nightmarish scenario you see in a crime drama hacking sequence, and it’s very, very real.
Ars Technica recently posted an expose on its website that delved into the seedy world of ratting. It’s a surprisingly easy “hobby” to kick start. All it takes is a few bucks for e-book documentation and some free time to spend in forums learning from experienced ratters and experimenting with the software.
All that’s left is to find some “slaves” – the matter-of-fact term ratters call the victim’s whose computers they’ve infected. Sometimes when a ratter tires of a slave, it’s (I say it because it’s the connection to the RAT on the computer that’s actually being sold) put up for sale. Generous ratters may even offer up slaves for free to those who aren’t as skilled – or maybe not enthusiastic enough to ensnare their own.
Ratters obviously couldn’t care less about irritating niggles like privacy, morality, or respect. There’s also very little chance that many ratters will ever be caught or face charges for what they do, and, unfortunately for the rest of the Internet-using public, RAT malware isn’t going to go away any time soon.
Your best defense is to make sure you’ve got a reliable, advanced anti-malware program installed, that your operating system and your web browser and its plug-ins are all kept up to date, and that you don’t install software from less-than-reputable websites.
And please, keep your eye on the little indicator light next to your webcam. If it turns on and you’re not running a chat program, pull the network cord out of your computer or turn it off immediately and get a professional to clean your system.
Image credits: Ars Technica