The volume of mass phishing attacks dropped drastically in the first half of 2013, from some 123,500 unique incidents in the second half of 2012 to 73,000 unique events between January and June of this year. But that doesn't really mean phishing is waning, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), which compiled the new data.
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"It's kind of more of the same," says Rod Rasmussen, co-author of the APWG report and CTO of Internet Identity. "It's more of a statistic oddity. The state of mass phishing is really pretty steady."
The downward trend in the first half of this year is mainly due to a decline in incidents of the hacking of shared virtual servers, a method phishers employ to hack into a hosting provider's virtual server and get hundreds of domains via a single strike. "That was down a bit last year, so it creates this downward trend in overall numbers ... Those [attacks] get shut down pretty quickly because they are very 'loud,'" Rasmussen says.
Meanwhile, some 20 percent more brands were targeted by users in the first half of this year, while PayPal remains the No. 1 phished brand with 18 percent of the attacks. There were 720 brands abused this year, half of which were targeted one to three times, and 80 that were abused 100-plus times a month. It's all about opportunity, according to the new APWG report.
"There are a lot more targets, so overall it's bad," Rasmussen says.
Phishers are trying different methods in their attacks, says Stephen Cobb, security researcher at ESET. "The number of people willing to commit cybercrime is not going down. My sense is that it's going up at this point in time," Cobb says. It's just that the phishers, like any attackers, are moving to other methods as defenders put in place mitigation methods to thwart them, he says.
The APWG report focuses on phishing attacks on the general public and doesn't cover spear-phishing, one of the most prolific initial attack vectors in targeted attacks today. "Because they involve a very small number of e-mail lures, and sometimes target company-internal systems, spear-phishing attempts are generally not reported and it is unknown how many take place," the report says.
Jeff LoSapio, CEO of ThreatSim, a phishing training firm, says the numbers in the APWG report are more of a short-term dip. "If you look at the different long-term statistics they have, there have been dips before," he says. "My analysis is the problem is getting worse" because phishing remains a popular form of cybercrime, he says.
Of the nearly 54,000 phishing domains the APWG found in the first half of 2013, phishers had registered some 12,713 of them, twice as many as they had registered last year. The APWG attributes that increase to a surge in domain registrations being executed by phishers in China. Nearly 70 percent of the registered phishing domains were set up to target Chinese users, and the domain names were purchased from Chinese and U.S. registrars.
"A large portion of phishing attacks used domain registration, hosting, and payment processing companies in different countries," says Greg Aaron, co-author of the report and president of Illumintel. "As a result, everyone ended up losing -- except the phishers. It’s a reminder that timely, international cooperation in the private sector is needed in order to combat e-crime."
Hosting providers and domain registrars with weak security or that don't keep close tabs on their systems or registrants continue to be targeted by phishers looking for an easy mark, the report says. Nearly 30 percent of all phishing attacks in the first half of 2013 were due to mass compromises of hosting providers, for example.
The full AWPG report is available here (PDF) for download.
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