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A Phishy Story

Phishing, using hijacked corporate logos and deceptive spam to steal personal information over the Internet, appears to have taken a more sinister turn. Reported Phishing attacks against well-known on-line brands such a Citibank, PayPal and eBay appear to be running as high as two hundred a month and none of the leading UK Internet banks and building societies remains untouched by increasingly imaginative criminals who can create near perfect digital copies of the website of the business they are targeting all the way down to the SSL key-lock on the browser.

A week ago, I’m told, something new and different appears to have happened in a phishing scam involving one of the UK’s largest banks. In fact, on the same day, two high street banks were targeted with elaborate scams but one introduced a new dimension to the crime.

In this case, the web site was so perfect that I doubted at first that it was a fake. All the links to the bank’s service worked perfectly and the only suspicious difference was that on asking for the user account and password details, it came back with a “Sorry try again” message, with a different combination of the secret password letter sequence to complete or enough to harvest the user password in a couple of attempts.

This is not unusual, it’s how these scams work and some are more subtle than others and outside of this, the spoofed URL, when it was examined, using Visual Route, resolved to an address in Anchorage Alaska, via a hosting service in France and New York. However, even with our banks enthusiastically outsourcing much of work abroad, it’s hard to imagine that a leading UK bank would have its website in Alaska.

A little deeper investigation and a conversation with one of the UK’s leading security experts revealed something unusual though. This time the website didn’t appear to be ‘Hosted’ in the proper sense, in a location where the FBI could break down the door, make arrests and pull the plug on the scam. What worried my friend was that this appeared to be the first evidence of organised crime using peer-to-peer (p2p) computing and the expanding domestic broadband network to host the spoof bank site.

“You might think it’s in Anchorage”, he told me, “But it’s not. It’s rather like using a file sharing service like Kazaa, something we’ve been worrying might happen”. “The criminals”, he said, “Can move the domain address of the site around and rather like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat, it can disappear and pop up somewhere else, on a PC perhaps with an open back door caused by a virus”.

On both sides of the firewall, viruses and worms are increasingly exploiting network security weaknesses and the thought that organised crime might be starting to harness the power of hundreds of thousands ‘zombie’ PCs is a deeply worrying one. In the UK alone, it’s been estimated that as much as 5% of the Personal Computer population is compromised with potential back door Trojans, a figure that not only presents nuisance value but a potential weapon of mass destruction if turned against any target attached to our critical infrastructure.

Best not tell the Americans!


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