You may have heard of denial-of-service attacks launched against web
sites, but you can also be a victim of these attacks.
Denial-of-service attacks can be difficult to distinguish from common
network activity, but there are some indications that an attack is in
What is a denial-of-service (DoS) attack?
In a denial-of-service (DoS) attack, an attacker attempts to prevent
legitimate users from accessing information or services. By targeting
your computer and its network connection, or the computers and network
of the sites you are trying to use, an attacker may be able to prevent
you from accessing email, web sites, online accounts (banking, etc.),
or other services that rely on the affected computer.
The most common and obvious type of DoS attack occurs when an attacker
"floods" a network with information. When you type a URL for a
particular web site into your browser, you are sending a request to
that site's computer server to view the page. The server can only
process a certain number of requests at once, so if an attacker
overloads the server with requests, it can't process your request.
This is a "denial of service" because you can't access that site.
An attacker can use spam email messages to launch a similar attack on
your email account. Whether you have an email account supplied by your
employer or one available through a free service such as Yahoo! or
Hotmail, you are assigned a specific quota, which limits the amount of
data you can have in your account at any given time. By sending many,
or large, email messages to the account, an attacker can consume your
quota, preventing you from receiving legitimate messages.
What is a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack?
In a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, an attacker may use
your computer to attack another computer. By taking advantage of
security vulnerabilities or weaknesses, an attacker could take control
of your computer. He or she could then force your computer to send
huge amounts of data to a web site or send spam to particular email
addresses. The attack is "distributed" because the attacker is using
multiple computers, including yours, to launch the denial-of-service
How do you avoid being part of the problem?
Unfortunately, there are no effective ways to prevent being the victim
of a DoS or DDoS attack, but there are steps you can take to reduce
the likelihood that an attacker will use your computer to attack other
- Install and maintain anti-virus software (see Understanding
Anti-Virus Software for more information).
- Install a firewall, and configure it to restrict traffic coming
into and leaving your computer (see Understanding Firewalls for
- Follow good security practices for distributing your email address
(see Reducing Spam for more information). Applying email filters
may help you manage unwanted traffic.
How do you know if an attack is happening?
Not all disruptions to service are the result of a denial-of-service
attack. There may be technical problems with a particular network, or
system administrators may be performing maintenance. However, the
following symptoms could indicate a DoS or DDoS attack:
- unusually slow network performance (opening files or accessing web
- unavailability of a particular web site
- inability to access any web site
- dramatic increase in the amount of spam you receive in your
What do you do if you think you are experiencing an attack?
Even if you do correctly identify a DoS or DDoS attack, it is unlikely
that you will be able to determine the actual target or source of the
attack. Contact the appropriate technical professionals for
- If you notice that you cannot access your own files or reach any
external web sites from your work computer, contact your network
administrators. This may indicate that your computer or your
organization's network is being attacked.
- If you are having a similar experience on your home computer,
consider contacting your Internet service provider (ISP). If there
is a problem, the ISP might be able to advise you of an
appropriate course of action.
Author: Mindi McDowell
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here