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New 'Chat-In-The-Middle' Phishing Attack Discovered

Phishers go Web 2.0 by chatting it up with their online banking victims
A new phishing attack discovered targeting a U.S. bank comes with a Web 2.0 twist: a pop-up chat session with the online banking customer.

This so-called "chat-in-the-middle" phishing attack discovered recently by RSA's FraudAction Research Lab starts like any other phish, with an email lure posing as the victim's bank. A phony URL takes them to the "bank," which is really a phishing site that mimics the look and feel of the actual online banking site. After the user begins the log-in process, a pop-up chat session is triggered, with the attackers posing as representatives from the bank's fraud department. They then try to draw out sensitive account information or credentials from the customer.

"The original lure is just a standard phishing email requesting them to verify some data," says Sean Brady, senior manager of identity protection and verification for RSA. "Either upon submission of the username and password or by selecting a 'forgot my username or password' link, it cues the chat window."

The live chat session is purportedly from the bank's "fraud department" looking to validate information from the banking customer to provide better service, but it's really a fraudster on the other end of the chat. "They ask for some default information, like your name, phone number, and email address, and then answers to your security questions," Brady says. "Theoretically, they can ask for anything."

Brady says online chat is a new twist to a phishing attack. "We are seeing the Web 2.0 concept more and more now, as all institutions are looking at how they can use various social networking and Web 2.0 features," he says. The fraudsters' adoption of Web 2.0 in their phishing attacks is what caught RSA's attention, he says.

RSA says it alerted the bank as soon as it discovered the phishing attack, and then shut down the operation, which was hosted on an infamous fast-flux network used widely by cybercriminals for hosting phishing attacks, Trojans, mule recruitment Websites, and other nefarious activity, according to RSA, which blogged about the attacks yesterday.

Brady says the attack demonstrates that the attackers are knowledgeable and willing to invest in the labor-intensive task of chatting live with their victims to steal as much information as possible. "If this type of attack proves to be successful, history tells us we can expect to see it used again and again against other institutions," he says.

RSA's finding comes on the heels of a recent report from IBM that found phishing attacks are on the decline because of the increased use of banking Trojans to steal financial data: In the first half of 2009, 66 percent of phishing was targeted at the financial industry, down from 90 percent in 2008. Online payment targets make up 31 percent of the share.

"We don't dispute that the volume of email phishing is going down. But we feel that's had no impact on actual phishing sites," Brady says. "In our data, phishing sites continue to increase or remain at steady levels."

This may be due to phishers using other methods of attack, including SMS phishing, or launching more targeted and less conspicuous email attacks, he says.

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