Internet users at home are increasingly becoming the targets of online criminal activity because they tend tolack the security measures that protect businesses and other more sophisticated users, a new report says.

Home users are the most targeted group for attackers attempting arange of crimes that includeidentity theft, fraud or other financially motivated crimes, according to the twice-yearly Symantec Internet Security report, published Monday.The sector accounts for 86 per cent of all targeted attacks, the report found.

Attackers are also using techniques to escape detection and extend the amount of time they are able to have access to a computer with the aim ofstealing information, hijacking the systemfor marketing purposes, offering remote access to the machine or otherwise compromising confidential information for profit, Symantec said.

"What really surprises is the way that attackers are moving," says Dean Turner, a Calgary-based editor of the report. "They're moving in a totally new direction."

In the past, he says, hackers focused mainly on vulnerabilities in computer networks and their components. But the advent of sophisticated firewalls and warning systems have made them harder targets.

"They're now starting to target home users quite heavily, primarily because home users are the weakest link in the security chain," says Turner.

Symantec, which markets the widely used Norton suite of security products, tracks established and emerging threats through a global network of researchers, customers' computers and so-called honey pots— monitored computers set up to secretly capture malicious code.

The usual suspects

The latest report is Symantec's 10th instalment.

The usual suspects are all there: Trojan-horse e-mails containing dangerous little viruses, dubious spam come-ons and phishing messages that purport to be from banks or credit-card companies and intrusive adware.

All have the potential to steal confidential personal and financial data from the vulnerable computer or turn it into a zombie unit drafted into vast "bot-nets" used to launch massive spam and denial-of-service assaults on the Internet.

Add to that the increasing presence of threats that can be triggered simply by clicking on a legitimate-looking web page, says Turner.

"This is really the wave of the future for these guys," he says.

In the past, hackers were satisfied with trying to compromise a computer's operating system but Turner says there's a real push toward targeting Web 2.0 technologies, the elements that make web pages interactive.

These are web applications that connect to web services such as MySpace.com and individual home users, perhaps through file sharing applications, using a web browser.

"That is the single largest point of exposure on a system, not only for a home user but for enterprise [business] users as well."

Web-application vulnerabilities made up 69 per cent of all vulnerabilities in the first half of this year, the report found.

Viewing a seemingly innocent web page opens a portal into the computer and a wrong mouse click— on a photo, say— can download malicious code.

"You may not even have to click on the photo," says Turner. "It may just be a question of viewing that particular image."

When it comes to protection, Turner recommends the usual precautions— up-to-date anti-virus, anti-spyware and spam filtering, along with a sturdy firewall.

Norton is developing software that will detect fraudulent web addresses but Turner admits web vulnerabilities remain hard to counter.

"That's part of the problem," he says. "It comes down to home users being very, very careful about the sites that they visit."

Browsers targeted

The threat report also highlights the continued vulnerability of popular web browsers.

Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer remains the most targeted browser, with 47 per cent of attacks, but Mozilla and even Apple's Safari web browser haven't escaped hackers' evil attentions.

Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox had the most vulnerabilities in the last six-month period but Turner says Explorer has the largest window of exposure— the time between the announcement of a vulnerability and the appearance of a patch to close the loophole.

For Explorer, the window stays open an average nine days, compared with just one day for Mozilla.

Ominously, Turner says researchers are charting an increase in so-called zero-day threats— previously unknown malicious codes that come to attention only after systems are compromised.

Microsoft is promising its new Vista operating system will feature enhanced security. Turner says research points to problems in the beta version but stresses its robustness won't be known until the finished product launches early next year.

Still, he says, history shows the arrival of a new operating system generally signals a fresh wave of attacks as hackers test its defences.

Other concerns highlighted in the report include the growth of spam, the annoying pitches for drugs, penis enlargement and penny stocks that clog the world's e-mail inboxes.

Spam can be more than a nuisance when it also contains malicious code that downloads if the e-mail is opened.

Turner is also worried about the growing use of instant-messaging as a conduit for malicious code, often with hackers spoofing a legitimate IM user's identity.

"That's a problem because with instant messaging everybody on your instant-messaging buddy list is somebody you trust," says Turner.

With files from the Canadian Press