A smurf attack is a type of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that uses a malware called “Smurf.” As in other forms of DDoS attacks, a smurf attack renders a victim’s network unusable by flooding it with requests.

Imagine an elevator that carries more than its maximum capacity. Overloading it would undoubtedly cause it to stop working correctly. And the worst thing that can happen is that it would crash.

In the same way, a smurf attack results in too many requests, paralyzing and even crashing a company’s server for hours or even days, depending on its cyber resilience or ability to respond and continue operating despite being DDoSed.

Other interesting terms…

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A smurf attack takes advantage of a weakness in ping software that comes built into most operating systems (OSs). The ping command allows a computer to know if another device or server is reachable by sending it a request. The request contains the source computer’s IP address. That way, the other device will know where to send the response to.

In a smurf attack, the originating IP address is spoofed and changed to the victim’s IP address. The attacker then sends the same request to thousands or millions of computers, so when they reply, the victim’s network gets flooded.

How did the Smurf Attack Originate?

The online world saw the emergence of the first smurf attacks in the 1990s. In 1998, for example, the University of Minnesota suffered from a smurf attack, which lasted for more than an hour. That resulted in the shutdown of several of its computers and an overall network slowdown.

The attack created a cyber traffic jam that also affected the rest of Minnesota, including Minnesota Regional Network (MRNet), one of the state’s Internet service providers (ISPs). As a result, MRNet’s clients, which included small businesses, Fortune 500 corporations, and universities, were also affected.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) services were also a favored victim of smurf attackers back then.

What are the Effects of a Smurf Attack?

The most apparent effect of a smurf attack or any denial-of-service (DoS) attack, for that matter, is crippling a server or network. It creates an Internet traffic jam, effectively rendering the victim’s system useless. It can target a competitor or it can serve as a cover for a more damaging attack such as stealing sensitive data.

Taking all these into account, the effects of a smurf attack on an organization include:

  • Loss of revenue: Since the whole network slows down or gets shut down, a company’s operation comes to a halt.
  • Loss of data: As mentioned, a smurf attack can also mean that the attackers are stealing your data. It allows them to exfiltrate data while you’re preoccupied with dealing with the DoS attack.
  • Damage to reputation: A data breach is costly, both in terms of money and reputation. Your customers may lose their trust in your organization since the sensitive information they entrusted to you got exposed.

At present, network administrators can better protect their systems from smurf attacks via simple router configurations. Organizations can also avoid becoming part of smurf attacks. Then again, cybercriminals have moved on toward instigating more sophisticated forms of DDoS attacks, so there’s no room for complacency.