Zeus Trojan: The World’s Most Widespread Malware

Zeus or Zbot is a dangerous malware. Learn how to detect and remove it before it can do any real damage.

Bojan Jovanovic Image
Updated:

November 18,2022

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The Zeus trojan is unquestionably the world’s most widespread malware. Incredibly destructive and able to get even into the computers of government agencies and massive servers, Zeus was behind some of the biggest hacks of this century

Many victims didn’t even realize their PCs were infected before it was too late; that’s how much of a threat this malware is.

In this article, we’ll go through the history of Zeus, explain why it has become so widespread, and explain what makes it so dangerous. Finally, we’ll teach you how to detect if your computer is in danger and what precautions you can take so you don’t fall victim to this malicious software.

What is the Zeus Trojan?

Zeus, or Zbot as it's often called, is a malware package that can be used for a variety of malicious purposes, including stealing banking information and installing ransomware.

It first came to prominence in 2007 when it was used in an attack on the United States Department of Transportation. Later on, Zeus infected millions of computers, creating one of the biggest botnets.

During 2009, the malware started spreading like wildfire, targeting machines running on the Microsoft Windows operating system. At one point, a malware infection was detected in over 74,000 FTP accounts on some of the world’s largest servers

This included corporations like Oracle, Cisco, and Amazon, but also Bank of America and NASA. During this time, the trojan infected over 3 million Windows computers in the US alone.

The Zeus trojan has also been used in technical support scams across Eastern Europe in which victims were tricked into thinking their computers were infected with a virus. As a result, many people were persuaded to give money to the scammers using it.

The sole purpose of this malware was to siphon funds out of its victims' accounts and into the pockets of its creators. For that, it used so-called "money mules," phantom accounts that were then forwarding funds to other accounts, thus obfuscating the money trail.

Additionally, Zeus led to the creation of Gameover ZeuS botnetsmassive networks of infected computers that bad actors could operate remotely through a command and control server. These were then used to launch DDoS attacks, send spam messages, and engage in phishing campaigns to infect even more computers with malicious code.

Ultimately, the group behind the Zbot trojan was arrested in October 2010 by the FBI. It consisted of 100 people from the US, the UK, and Ukraine. By the time they were taken down, hackers were able to steal $70 million from their victims. Three years later, the supposed mastermind behind Zeus was arrested in Thailand. 

Still, this didn’t stop the spread of the malware, as the original Zeus source code was already publicly available, and new strains would keep popping up.

The Inner Workings of the Zeus Virus

This banking trojan works by infecting a user’s computer and then using that user’s machine as a “bot” or “zombie.” This means that the user’s machine can be controlled remotely by the attacker without the user’s knowledge. Once a machine has been infected and has become a part of the Zeus botnet, the attacker can then use it to carry out a variety of malicious tasks.

The original Zeus malware was mostly spread through drive-by downloads and phishing schemes. In a drive-by download, the user visits a website that has been compromised by the attacker. The attacker then uses exploit code to install the Zeus code on the user’s machine silently.

Phishing attacks consisted of numerous phishing emails where the attacker it appear as if they were coming from a legitimate website or organization. The emails would include a file that, when opened, would unload the package on the target machine. It would usually look like legitimate software or a document, tricking even computer-savvy people.

Zeus is designed to steal sensitive information from its victims, specifically financial data. The typical Zero trojan behavior consists of several actions:

  1. Keystroke logging: Zeus records everything that you type on your keyboard, including passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive data. This information is then sent back to the attacker, who can use it to commit financial fraud or identity theft.
  2. Form grabbing: Zeus can also intercept data that you enter into online forms on legitimate websites, such as those used for online banking or shopping. Malicious actors are after financial information, and this is a method of phishing for credit card numbers.
  3. Installing ransomware: The malware has been used to spread and install ransomware on its targets, encrypting data in the process. A devastating attack, as it prevents people from accessing their important files and data.
  4. Botnet creation: As mentioned before, Zeus attacks were a method of botnet creation, causing infected computers to spread the malicious code even further across the internet, infecting millions of computers.

Obviously, this all makes Zeus a very dangerous piece of malware. 

Zeus Trojan: Protection and Precautions

There are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself from Zeus and similar trojan infections.

First and foremost, you should make sure your operating system and Windows antivirus apps are up to date on all your machines. Modern antiviruses have become really good at detecting trojan software, and thanks to Zeus’s notoriety, developers of antivirus software made sure that this particular trojan never gets through.

You should also practice safe browsing. That means ignoring or blocking online ads but also avoiding downloading anything from suspicious websites. Additionally, learning to recognize phishing attempts goes a long way, as that’s how trojans and ransomware usually spread. Always double-check the sender address, and don’t install unknown apps on your computer.

To protect yourself against the Zeus trojan, remove stored passwords from your browser, too. It’s better to use a password manager instead and avoid reusing your passwords across multiple websites. This is a good cybersecurity practice in general, but especially important for avoiding ID theft via trojans.

Speaking of password security, using a two-factor authentication (2FA) tool is a must. This way, even if bad actors somehow get ahold of your login information, they still can’t access your account, as you’ll need to verify each login attempt manually. 

Detecting and Removing the Zeus Trojan From Your Computer

Now, there’s a big difference between an actual Zeus attack and the Zeus.2022 pop-up message that claims your computer is infected. The latter is a known scam via adware to make you click on the banner. By thinking you’re getting rid of the virus, you’ll be infecting your computer with more malware instead.

But if you do detect the Zeus trojan on your computer, don’t fret. Every virus infection, even such a drastic one, can be mitigated. Here are the steps you need to take to get rid of it:

  1. Download and install antivirus software. You can find some recommendations on our website, and these are all highly reputable apps.
  2. Reboot your computer into Safe Mode and disable the internet connection.
  3. Run a full antivirus scan to detect and finally remove the Zeus trojan from your computer.
  4. Once the scanning and cleaning process is complete, reboot back into your OS.
  5. Check your online and banking accounts for any changes and report them. Also, make sure to update all your passwords once Zeus is out of your computer.

Final Thoughts

There haven’t been many viruses or trojans as infamous as Zeus. Luckily, its reign of terror is long gone thanks to improved malware detection, but not before it managed to wreak havoc across multiple organizations and dozens of servers. Using this guide, you’ll be safe against newer Zeus variants and similar cyber attacks. Stay safe!

FAQ
What does the Zeus trojan do?

It works as a backdoor to your computer system. Its main purpose is to steal your accounts so that the hackers can gain access to your banking data, but also to install ransomware and other malware.

If left unchecked, Zeus is capable of causing untold damage, using your own computer to spread further, and ultimately blocking you from accessing your files. Therefore, victims need to get rid of the Zeus virus as soon as possible to mitigate any potential damage.

What is Zeus?

Zeus is one of the most infamous pieces of malicious code ever to spread across the internet. Within just two years of its activity, the trojan was able to steal $70 million, affect tens of thousands of important accounts, and infiltrate some of the most well-secured websites and organizations. 

Ultimately, the crackdown team managed to arrest people behind Zeus, but the damage was already done.

What type of malware is Zeus?

Zeus is a trojan. First used in malicious activities in 2007, the original Zeus trojan was able to steal data, spread malware, and create botnets. The makers of Zeus made its code available to the public shortly after launching the initial phishing campaign, causing several variants to appear and spread the malware even further.

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