January 29, 2008
That slick phishing email posing as your bank -- identical logo and all -- may not be as sophisticated as it looks: Many phishers behind these schemes are actually careless, and even clueless, about protecting the data they steal.
A pair of researchers recently went undercover and got a first-hand glimpse of some of the phishing world's tactics and were surprised how easy it was for them to discover how phishers share stolen Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, debit card PINs, and other sensitive data, as well as how simple it was to trace phishing servers. They'll share some of their findings on the surprisingly crude techniques they witnessed being used by phishers, next month at Black Hat DC.
Nitesh Dhanjani -- who along with fellow researcher Billy Rios will disclose what they learned after infiltrating the phisher universe -- says that in one case, he was able to trace the phisher behind a scam by accessing the back-end PHP script that takes information the phishing victim provides and emails it to the phisher. He then Googled the string, which he found in a directory listing.
"We Googled it and found 15 message boards, mostly in foreign countries," Dhanjani says. These phishers were basically sharing freshly phished SSNs, ATM card numbers, mother's maiden names, and other data on the message boards.
"They were not covering their tracks," he says. "These are what I call 'charitable' phishers, who want to share their [stolen data] with others" for political reasons or to gain respect in the phishing community.
It only took about 15 minutes to get to the bottom of that phish. "That's when we realized this is big. This information is everywhere," he says.
And many of the phishers the researchers studied had never bothered to patch the servers they compromised, he says. "A lot of this is based on brute-force. They want to install their phishing sites on 50 or 60 servers a day, so there's not much time to patch."
They also often use widely available plug-and-play phishing kits, which contain templates containing the look and feel and logos of the banks and other companies for use in phishing exploits, he says. All the phisher needs is the emails of his or her potential victims. Some phishers are craftier than others, too: The researchers discovered that some of these kits come with a nasty payload of their own -- backdoors that allow the author of the kit to phish his "customer's" phished data. (That's basically a phisher phishing a phisher).
So what about the conventional wisdom that cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated and professional, backed by organized crime groups? While that may be true for some forms of cybercrime, Dhanjani says, it's not so with phishing. "We found in all levels that this [phishing] is anything but sophisticated," he says. "It's an illusion that it's a high-end, sophisticated group."
Although he notes that his research lasted only about one month, he says he learned the profile of the typical phisher is somewhere between a brute-force spammer and a script kiddie. "This is not someone who's doing spamming, but at the same time, I've seen some script kiddies who are more sophisticated than these phishers."
Many are overseas, in countries far out of reach of U.S. authorities. "These are people who have nothing to lose." Some convene on old message boards that have been overrun by spam, so that they are less conspicuous. But it doesn't take long to drill down and find phishers on these boards discussing identities they've stolen and are selling or sharing, he says.
Dhanjani says although he and Rios posed as phishers looking to purchase identities, they never actually conducted any transactions. "We asked how much they wanted, the currency, and how to do this. E-gold was their currency of choice."
And ironically, if you're phished, you'd better hope that your phisher is actually one of the smarter and more sophisticated ones, Dhanjani says. "Then at least when your information is stolen, it's only going to one person. If a phisher is sloppy, other people can get access to your information, too."
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