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Attacks/Breaches

5/27/2009
04:23 PM
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More Than 80% Of Phishing Attacks Use Hijacked, Legitimate Websites

New research from the Anti-Phishing Working Group shows how phishers are better covering their tracks -- and what to do when phishers compromise your Website

It used to be that researchers could sometimes track a phishing exploit by the notorious cybercrime ring behind it, like the Rock Phish gang, but no more: New research from the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) has found that most phishers are setting up shop on legitimate Websites to be inconspicuous when they steal valuable information from victims.

In the second half of 2008, roughly 57,000 phishing attacks worldwide targeted a specific brand or organization, up from around 47,300 in the first half of 2008, according to a newly released report (PDF) from the APWG. The attacks were waged on 30,454 different domain names, only 5,591 of which were domains the phishers set up themselves. The rest were from legitimate Websites they had hijacked to carry out their exploits.

The average amount of time a phishing site was up: 52 hours, according to the report.

Phishers used their own malicious domains in 13 percent of attacks, according to the report, while 11 percent used subdomain registration services, some of which offer free hosting as well as DNS services that let you redirect your domain name at any time. These services are notorious for making the taking down of malicious sites difficult, according to the report. Around 6,340 subdomain accounts were used for phishing purposes in the second half of last year, up from 4,512 in the first half of the year.

"When we used to talk about the Rock Phish Group, phishers were segmented, and you could tell what sites they were setting up. But we're seeing more groups now, and it's harder to say, 'Here's one site by one particular group,'" says Laura Mather, chair of the Antiphishing Working Group's Internet Policy Committee. "They are obfuscating what they are doing...making it harder to specifically group them...Now they are more creative, agile, and flexible."

Phishers also are paying close attention to what users fall and don't fall for. Interestingly, phishers are using fewer unique IP address-based attacks -- only 2,809 in the second half of the year versus 3,389 in the first half of the year. That has been a gradual downward trend since early 2007.

Putting a brand name in the URL to fool victims isn't necessarily effective, Mather says. "Consumers don't know how to look at URLs to tell where they are going, so it doesn't even matter," she says.

Meanwhile, the APWG also recently released an advisory with detailed tips (PDF) about what to do if phishers compromise your Website for their exploits. It's aimed at helping small to midsize organizations take the proper steps when they discover or are notified that their site is being abused to host phishing operations. Among the recommendations:

  • verify the third party that alerts you that your site was compromised;
  • report the phishing URL to the APWG ([email protected]), which ensures that word gets out to security vendors;
  • restore the site to its uncompromised state; and
  • conduct a postmortem to prevent future compromises.

David Piscitello, a member of ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee and a co-author of the APWG advisory, says among the common mistakes he sees that can lead to phishers hijacking sites is not validating user or machine input for Web submission forms, and deploying scripts on your site without vetting them.

"When a Web developer fails to validate user input, he leaves not only his Web application and Web server, but databases, even entire networks, vulnerable to data insertion and scripting attacks, including 'privilege escalation' attacks, where the script is designed to gain administrative control over the server that hosts the Web applications," Piscitello says.

Another common mistake he says he sees: "Web developers may use scripts they download from public sources -- 'free scripts' Websites -- without studying the script to see exactly what it does, or whether the script is exploitable [and] either badly written or written with the same lack of attention to input validation...Web developers should only use scripts from trusted sources, and only use sources from trusted sites that have been digitally signed and authenticated by the trusted site operators," he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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