The change in hacker motivation -- from seeking fame to seeking fortune -- occurred in 2004 and 2005, said Art Wong, vice president for Symantec, at a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill sponsored by the company.
"Hackers are working for financial profit and gain -- not fame," Wong said.
Online miscreants are now more interested in releasing worm viruses that hide and gather personal information, than in inflicting big-splash viruses that take down networks. "It's very much more insidious than in the past," Wong said.
Even more troubling are botnets, which are specially designed networks for hacking. They are propagating quickly in the United States, Europe and Asia. In some cases, these botnets are rented out to third-party hackers.
As hackers get more sophisticated, they also are becoming more professional -- often working Monday through Friday during daytime hours. "These are people who are doing this full time," Wong said.
Federal investigators also are seeing more of a focus on stealing money. "Most of what we're seeing is financial fraud," said Larry Johnson, a special agent with the Secret Service, who added that online account takeovers are on the rise.
Much of the information stolen by hackers reaches the streets, as personal information is sold between criminals, Johnson said. There is also a robust black market in hacking tools and exploits.
Federal agencies are working together more closely to fight the problem but more cooperation is needed, said Andy Purdy, acting director of the national cyber security division at Homeland Security Department.
The future holds more trouble as specialized hacker groups rise. "Some will just create [deceptive viruses known as] Trojans, others will just help you transfer money," said Wong. He also predicts more botnets that will facilitate phishing sites. The phishing sites look like official company sites but are in fact fake sites to lure a consumer into revealing personal financial and other data.
"For the consumer, the biggest hurdle is education and awareness," said Wong. "Today the [online] environment is more dangerous than it has ever been in the past."
"Prevention is first and foremost," Johnson said.