Apple products, including the Mac and the iPhone, are increasingly being targeted by computer hackers according to new research, shattering years of relative safety for the Apple camp.

This year has proven to be a banner year for the Cupertino, Calif.-based electronics maker. Apple's hardware have sold more than any other year, but the larger user base makes it increasingly more enticing for hackers with malicious intent.

Apple sold 2.1m Macs in the third quarter, up from 1.1m in the first quarter of 2006, according to Gartner, the research group.

Mac's market share is now significant enough… for parasites to target, security firm F-Secure said, noting that malware gangs don't make an effort to develop something without the promise of a profitable return.

The company said the rise in attacks against Apple appeared to be the work of a single gang of professional hackers known in underground networks as the Zlob gang. The crew makes spyware that often claims to be a needed video codec to view copy-protected media.

The rising security threat could present a challenge to Apple, which has long touted the security advantages of its platform over rivals. Apple declined to discuss specific steps it was taking to counter the growing number of attacks.

The Zlob gang relies on tricking users to download and install their malicious software. Once installed, Zlob variants typically show fake error messages designed to convince the computer user into installing and buying rogue antispyware products.

Other malware from the group also include a DNSChanger, which silently reconfigure the computer's DNS server settings.

DNS servers are responsible for converting people friendly text URLs into computer friendly numeric IP addresses. Once the DNS settings are changed to their servers — the Zlob gang is in control of the Web browser's destination.

The iPhone, which ha s sold over 1.4 million iPhones to date, is also a target, the company said.

[The iPhone] uses a version of Mac OSX, which is in turn based on Unix, F-Secure said. If you understand Unix security, then you can relatively easily 'port' your knowledge and understanding to the iPhone.

News of Apple's growing attacks comes as the number of viruses and other malware has doubled over the past year.

F-Secure had detected 500,000 viruses, trojans and worms in 2007, compared with 250,000 last year.