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updated 5/16/2011 11:49:16 AM ET 2011-05-16T15:49:16

A small Internet service provider on British Columbia's picturesque Vancouver Island was hit by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack this week that disrupted Web use for thousands of customers. The attack heralds a shift in the size of organizations cyberattackers are now targeting.

The attack hit Islandnet.com on Monday, and then resurfaced two days later in a "widespread, sustained way," that prevented customers, including a grocery store chain and the Vancouver Island Firefighters Association, from accessing their websites, the Canadian publication Times Colonist reported.

A DDoS attack overloads a website with traffic, and forces it to slow to a crawl or stop functioning altogether as a result. The hacking collective Anonymous has successfully used DDoS attacks to bring down the websites of dozens of high-profile groups, including the Recording Industry Association of America, PayPal, MasterCard, the Westboro Baptist Church, and government sites in Iran, Tunisia, New Zealand and Egypt.

Islandnet's owner, Mark Morley, told the Times Colonist he received an email yesterday (May 12) from the perpetrator, who cited a specific blog written by a Vancouver man about his legal battles over child custody as the impetus behind the the DDoS attack.

Islandnet's problem was resolved yesterday, after Morley complied with attacker's demand and took down the blog.

The issue is larger than just Vancouver Island, however; the very fact that someone went after such a small target — Islandnet has only five employees — marks a significant change in the DDoS landscape.

A report issued Monday (May 9) by the Internet infrastructure service firm Verisign found that DDoS attackers are setting their sights lower than in the past.

According to Verisign's report, 63 percent of midsize to large organizations say they suffered at least one DDoS attack in the past year, and 11 percent suffered six or more, the security website Dark Reading reported.

The motivation behind going after smaller companies is, like almost all cyberattacks, financial. But, according to Ondrej Krehel, information security officer with Identity Theft 911, there's an element of ease as well.

"Small organizations don't have the resources to defend themselves against DDoS attacks," Krehel told SecurityNewsDaily. "They [cybercriminals] are really cornering these small businesses."

Krehel said that by launching DDoS attacks on smaller vendors and Web hosting companies, which "don't have the same type of DDoS mitigation capabilities" as large companies, it's much easier for an attacker to disrupt the business, and then demand a payment to stop the attacks.

This, in turn, leads to a new set of security problems.

"Once the company pays, how do they know that their information isn't resold to another botnet operator?" Krehel said.

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