Report: Gadgets Loaded With Viruses at Chinese Factories

LOS ANGELES — While consumers have long been warned about the dangers of viruses on the Internet and the evils of unexpected email attachments, a new threat has emerged that is harder to defeat: malware preloaded on popular electronic devices straight from their Chinese factories.

Infected devices have included everything from iPods to the popular TomTom in-car navigation systems, all found to contain password-stealing viruses and other malware that provided hackers with access to the victims' computers.

The viruses are transmitted from the infected devices when they are attached to a PC via a USB cable — a common practice for updating software or downloading music files.

According to the Associated Press, Chinese factories are the major source for these tainted products, and are widely used as companies seek to keep prices low for consumers.

While the source of the infections is not in question, speculation over the motives for them remains, with theories ranging from accidental causes such as a worker connecting an infected mp3 player into a factory test computer to organized efforts by hackers and criminal gangs –— with a combination of these factors being the most likely scenario.

"It's the digital equivalent of the recent series of tainted products traced to China, including toxic toothpaste, poisonous pet food and toy trains coated in lead paint," the AP report stated.

Due to corporate secrecy, there are no clear numbers as to how many devices have left their factories with malicious software embedded in them, but given the popularity of these devices, the numbers could be in the millions.

One example of the pervasiveness of the problem comes from Los Angeles-based computer consultant Jerry Askew, who purchased a $50 Uniek digital picture frame at Target. When Askew connected the device to his computer in an attempt to upload his images to the frame, his antivirus program reported that the frame carried four viruses, including a password logger.

"You expect quality control coming out of the manufacturers," Askew said. "You don't expect that sort of thing to be on there."

According to experts, maintaining up-to-date antivirus software is the best defense against these evolving threats, but even this measure may not be enough — another case involves digital frames infected with a previously unknown bug that steals online gaming passwords from targeted PCs while disabling the infected PC's antivirus software.

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