Rethinking Website Spoofing Mitigation

Deception technology is evolving rapidly, making it easier for organizations to turn the tables on their attackers. Here's how.

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo, Founder & CTO, Allure Security

August 7, 2019

6 Min Read

Website spoofing is a common problem that has doubled in the last year, resulting in $1.3 billion in losses, according to the 2019 Thales Access Management Index (registration required). In a high-profile example of website spoofing that has left the business world more than a little rattled, hackers successfully diverted about 500,000 customers visiting the British Airways website last summer to a realistic-looking but fraudulent site, without the airline having any idea it had been spoofed.

The spoof site gathered names, addresses, login information, payment card details, and other data. After a review by the EU's Information Commissioner's Office, British Airways faces a possible record-breaking fine for violating the terms of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to the tune of £183.5 million — about 1.5% of the airline's annual revenue. Because of website spoofing, not only does the airline suffer losses to its customers and its brand but the additional government-levied fines and financial pain.

This attack vector has been around for decades and continues to be popular because it's difficult to detect until it's too late. For a fairly small investment, adversaries can acquire all the tools they need on the Dark Web to set up highly convincing website-spoofing schemes, as part of a larger phishing campaign. Website spoofing works on all of the major Internet browsers and is not prevented by "secure" connections. The adversary can observe and modify all website pages and form submissions, even when the browser's "secure connection" indicator is lit. The user sees no easily discernible indication that anything is wrong. Even sites protected by two-factor authentication cannot escape the assault.

Under Europe's GDPR, multinational corporations must make every effort to provide "reasonable security" mechanisms to protect personal data. As the British Airways fine shows, "reasonable security" now extends to spoofed sites that the organization never even knew about. This incident should serve as a wake-up call that current methodologies aren't effective enough. It's time to rethink the way we approach detection and mitigation of website spoofing incidents.

Shift the Focus
To date, options for detecting when a website has been spoofed have largely relied on monitoring domain registrations and manual web searches. However, this approach is susceptible to human error and is only capable of identifying spoofed websites after the fraud occurs. A common approach for detecting website spoofing has been to search for brand images and relevant content from the copied site. But this approach leaves the attacked company with no insight into how many and which of its clients were potentially victimized and does nothing to deter the next attack.

Another familiar approach has been to train workers and consumers to be able to spot fakes. This is a good idea in theory because it educates and empowers individuals. It's true that in some cases, spoofed sites can be detected because something "looks off" compared with the original website. However, the sheer volume of spoofs being created and the increased level of sophistication behind these attacks makes it quite difficult for the user to spot them with certainty. It also places an unfair burden on the victim of the attack, making them responsible for detection instead of the owner of the original website that's been targeted.

Domain registration monitoring and training employees fail to help organizations detect spoofing early in the life cycle of an attack, before data is stolen. Further, these approaches cannot help businesses understand how long the fake site has been active, and most importantly, how many customers or employees may have been victimized. The two biggest challenges of all — who initiated the attack and deterring the adversary from trying it again — are completely left out of the mitigation process with these approaches.

Deceiving the Deceivers
A more sensible strategy is to focus on early detection and a smarter mitigation strategy called deception technology that is painful to the attacker and provides actionable data for organizations. (Disclaimer: Allure is one of a number of vendors that market deception technology products.) The idea is to flood the adversary with highly believable decoy credentials and personal information. This causes a great deal of doubt about what may have been stolen, making it hard for the fraudster to discern what is real and what is fake. The only way to know is to test all credentials at the real site, causing greater overhead costs for the adversary, and providing an opportunity to gather information about the attacker when decoy logins occur, such as endpoint IP addresses under his or her control.

Deception techniques could finally shift the advantage in favor of the legitimate businesses victimized by website spoofing. At Columbia, our Computer Science and IDS Lab has been conducting experiments to determine how certain deception techniques can bait adversaries with highly convincing but false credentials embedded with tracking mechanisms that are triggered when the attacker attempts to open or exfiltrate them. We called this the "BotSwindler," and it aims to detect crimeware such as spoofing by deceptively inducing attackers into an observable action during the exploitation of monitored information injected into the guest OS. To entice attackers with information of value, the system supports a variety of different types of bait credentials, including decoy Gmail and PayPal authentication credentials, as well as those from large financial institutions.  

Whether the motivation is to spread fake news in pursuit of influence, steal customer login credentials or credit card numbers for financial gain, or break into cloud shares and networks to exfiltrate intellectual property, website spoofing has devastating effects on company reputation, consumer trust, and corporate revenues. It's time to take a more modern approach to solving this pervasive security problem. Simply detecting IP anomalies isn't enough. Deception technology is evolving rapidly and is well-positioned to detect website spoofing schemes sooner, giving organizations the ability to turn the tables on adversaries.

Related Content:


Black Hat USA returns to Las Vegas with hands-on technical Trainings, cutting-edge Briefings, Arsenal open-source tool demonstrations, top-tier security solutions, and service providers in the Business Hall. Click for information on the conference and to register.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo

Founder & CTO, Allure Security

Dr. Salvatore Stolfo is the founder and CTO of Allure Security. As a professor of artificial intelligence at Columbia University since 1979, Dr. Stolfo has spent a career figuring out how people think and how to make computers and systems think like people. Dr. Stolfo has been granted over 70 patents and has published over 250 papers and books in the areas of parallel computing, AI knowledge-based systems, data mining, computer security and intrusion detection systems. His research has been supported by numerous government agencies, including DARPA, NSF, ONR, IARPA, AFOSR, ARO, NIST, and DHS. He was recently elevated to IEEE Fellow for his contributions to machine learning applied to computer security.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights