Just in time for the holiday season, phishers have devised a more efficient way to get unwary online shoppers to part with their personal data and financial account information.
The new technique, dubbed Operation Huyao by the security researchers at Trend Micro who discovered it, basically lessens the time and effort needed for attackers to mount a phishing campaign while also making such attacks harder to spot.
For conventional phishing attacks to work, attackers have to typically create a realistic looking copy of the website they are targeting so that would-be victims have no idea they are actually on a malicious page.
It is a process that requires attackers to capture, copy and modify the code of a target organization's website and then host the malicious code on their own site, Trend Micro senior threat researcher Noriaki Hayashi wrote on the Security Intelligence Blog on Wednesday.
The new technique allows phishers to skip some of these steps by inserting a proxy program between a would-be victim and the target website, he said.
"The proxy relays traffic between the website and the victim and controls what the victim sees regardless of the device they are using. "So long as the would-be victim is just browsing around the site, they see the same content as they would on the original site," Hayashi said.
It is only when the user actually attempts to make a purchase that the proxy program serves up a modified page that walks the victim through a checkout progress designed to extract personal information and payment card or bank account information, he said.
Trend Micro observed the new technique being used to steal information from customers of a department store in Japan. In that particular instance, the malicious payments page served up by the web proxy asked users for their full names and addresses, email and phone numbers, website password, and detailed payment card information along with expiration dates and card verification codes.
For the attack, the phishers employed various blackhat SEO techniques to ensure that people doing specific product-related searches online were served up with results containing malicious links to the targeted store. Users who clicked on the links were then routed to the department store's website via the malicious proxy.
"This really is like a standard phishing attack from the [victim's] point of view," said Christopher Budd, threat communications manager at Trend Micro via email.
"The attacker lures the target to a bogus site under the attacker's control. The key difference here is that the attacker is proxying back to the legitimate site on the backend to increase the believability of the bogus site."
If the attack technique catches on, it could become a very worrisome development, Hayashi wrote.
"This makes phishing harder to detect by end users, as the phishing sites will be nearly identical to the original sites," he said. In addition, attackers will no longer have to exert effort on duplicating entire shopping sites because all they need to do is duplicate a target website's payment page.
Operation Huyao shows that phishers are devising new ways to resist attempts at stopping them.
According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), the average and median "uptimes" for phishing attacks remain near historic lows, suggesting that efforts to stop them are proving successful.
In the first half of 2014 for instance, the median uptime for phishing attacks was 8 hours and 42 minutes, meaning that half of all phishing attackers were active for less than nine year, the APWG has noted.
Even so, phishing continues to be a major problem. In the first six months of 2014, the industry group counted more than 123,700 unique phishing attacks which was the highest since the second half of 2009. A total of 756 institutions were specifically targeted in these attacks, the largest number ever during a six-month period.
Of these companies, Apple was the most phished brand.