You see phishing attack attempts nearly every day, but what you don't see is the face behind the attack. In a rare glimpse into the mind of a phisher, hacker and security expert RSnake recently engaged an attacker who says he makes $3,000 to $4,000 dollars a day and was willing to share a bit about himself and how he operates.
RSnake, a.k.a. Robert Hansen, CEO of SecTheory and Dark Reading blogger, asked the phisher, called "lithium," how he operates, what technology he uses, and just how much money he makes off these scams. Lithium, who says he's 18 and has been phishing since he was 14, said he has stolen over 20 million identities, mostly via social networking worms. "I have so many hundreds of thousands of accounts to many websites I havent even got a chance to look through," he wrote to RSnake, who today published the responses on the ha.ckers.org blog.
While RSnake admitted he can't verify all of lithium's actual numbers, he said in response to comments on his ha.ckers blog that the phisher's story "jives" with that of traditional phishers.
RSnake also confirms that lithium is an actual phisher: "I found one of his old phishing sites," RSnake says. "I can't comment on the numbers, but yes, he was definitely really a social networking phisher."
Lithium says he got interested in phishing after realizing the scam emails his parents were getting were weak, but still basically worked. "So, I knew automatically I could come up with more efficient methods and have a far greater outcome."
Lithium only phishes about three or four times a week, and he targets social networking sites, mostly those frequented by the teen crowd. "5 times out of 10 the person uses the same password for their email account," he wrote. "Now depending what is inside their email inbox determines how much more profit I make. If an email account has one of the following paypal/egold/rapidshare/ebay accounts even the email account itself, I sell those to scammers."
The phisher said he typically tries to locate a domain name that looks "realistic" to the target, and then finds an anonymous host, typically offshore. "Although, I do tend to use compromised hosting accounts," he wrote. "Secondly, I view the page source. Then I alter the source code to post the forms information to my pishing [sic] site. Thirdly, I create a php file which will POST the current forms information to a text file on my server. I use the same php file with every site...Just minor alterations are needed since its mearly [sic] a few lines of php code."
RSnake asked him how many people he typically phishes per day. Depending on the size of the Website, lithium said, it's usually about 30,000.
HD Moore, director of security research for BreakingPoint Systems, says while lithium does match the typical profile of phishers, his "numbers seem a little on the high side."
Plus, lithium's days as a phisher could be numbered if he isn't careful. "Running a phishing site attracts attention -- it has to, or it won't work. Bragging about how much money you make is a sure sign you are going to get busted in the near future," Moore says.
Using freelance programmers is also a liability, Moore notes. "If any of them get audited on where their money comes from, you can bet they would turn over this guy in a heartbeat."
Lithium, meanwhile, told RSnake he uses a dedicated server, VPN, network encryption software, and a 1-Mbit/s ADSL line. Tool-wise, the phisher said he uses MyChanger for most social networking sites: "This makes pishing [sic] so much faster on social networking sites. Everything is automated! messaging/bulletins/comments/profile modifications it's great. Other than that, I get ALOT [sic] of custom programs built to suite [sic] my needs from freelance developers," he wrote.
How does he remain in the shadows? "I use VPN's, Dedicated servers, Proxies and my network traffic is encrypted. All payments are made through egold."
Interestingly, he admitted Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2.0's anti-phishing filters "cause the most irritation" of phishing deterrents available today.
But security experts say not much seems to hurt lithium and other phishers in the end. It's still always a game of catch-up for the good guys, says Jeremiah Grossman, founder and CTO of WhiteHat Security. "Microsoft and Mozilla spend years figuring out a workable solution, then a short time later, it's all for not. Bad guys can adapt a lot faster than the good guys, which is why our job is so much harder."
And the wealth of Web application bugs is keeping lithium in business -- for now, anyway: "Lazy web developers are the reason I'm still around pishing," lithium wrote.
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading