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Phishers: No Points for Originality

More than 90 percent of phishing attacks come from kits, ISS researcher says

Phishing might be a growing threat, but its perpetrators aren't particularly creative, a researcher said last week.

Some 92 percent of phishing attacks are created through do-it-yourself exploit kits, said Gunter Ollman, a security expert at IBM's ISS unit, in a blog.

ISS's Frequency X research unit last week identified 3,544 new phishing Websites, a relatively slow week. In past weeks, the unit has identified as many as five times that amount, mirroring the findings of organizations such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group. (See New Spec Could Cut Phishing, Spam, Spam Soars in 1Q, Small Businesses Under Fire , More Phishing Phun: Even Experienced Web Users Are Becoming Victims, and PhishTank Looks to Expand.)

This time, however, the unit took a closer look at how the phishing attacks were developed. In last week's data, 3,256 phishing sites were associated with phishing "kits" -- prewritten packages that help attackers get into phishing quickly, Ollman says in his blog.

The phishing kit sites all tied back to about 100 registered domains, 44 percent of which are in Hong Kong, Ollman observes. The data suggests that although phishing is widely regarded as a growing problem, most of it emanates from a relatively small number of sites.

"Even though this data only corresponds to a single week's worth of phishing attacks, we can clearly see that the use of phishing kits -- with their multiple sites hosted on a single server -- greatly inflates the total number of phishing sites that are commonly reported each week," Ollman states. "This number does not adequately correlate to the number of hosts that are actually involved in a phishing scam."

The question of how to count these kit-based attacks is analogous to the problem faced by those who track traditional network hacks, Ollman says. "Either you count the number of attack probes detected, or you count the number of attackers actually launching the probes," he says. "There is a big difference between observing twice as many attacks and having twice as many attackers targeting your organization."

The ISS data supports the position of PayPal CISO Michael Barrett, who earlier this year suggested that phishing figures might be significantly overblown.

"Financially, phishing is not a terribly significant problem for us -- in fact, it's not even in the top five" threats that could cause losses at the financial services company, Barrett said in an interview at the RSA Conference in February. "In fact, I suspect that many of the published figures on phishing's impact are significantly overestimated, probably by an order of magnitude." (See PayPal CSO: Phishing Threat Overstated.)

Ollman agrees. "Whilst the stories of month-on-month exponential increases in phishing attack sites make for a compelling news headline, I’ve always felt that the numbers were overly inflated and did not adequately reflect the true nature of this evolving threat."

ISS is continuing to collect figures on phishing and will have a new report later this year, Ollman says.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • IBM Internet Security Systems
  • RSA Security Inc. (Nasdaq: EMC)

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