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Despite a handful of successful criminal prosecutions and an increase in public awareness, February saw a marked increase in the number of new variations of the spam-borne swindle called "phishing".

The Anti-Phishing Working Group charted 282 unique attacks last month, a 60 per cent increase above the 176 attacks spotting in January, the group says. "The number of attacks is growing, and the rate of increase is growing," says Dan Maier, director of marketing for the group.

In a phishing attack, a fraudster spams the Internet with email purporting to be from a reputable financial institution or e-commerce site, and urging the recipient to click on an included link to update their personal profile or carry out some transaction. The link takes the victim to a fake website designed to look like the real thing, but where any personal or financial information entered is routed to the scammer.

The most audacious variants of the scam demand a victim's name, address, credit card number, expiration date, three-digit CCV number, ATM code, social security number, and other information useful for credit card fraud and identity theft.

As in months past, eBay was the most commonly-spoofed company in the February line-up, with 104 different scam messages in circulation. Citibank and PayPal were a distant second and third place with 58 and 42 respectively. Overall, the swindlers appear to be using a wider variety of scammy mailings, but are drawing on a smaller pool of brands, says Maier.

"The interesting thing about that is, phishers seem to be focusing on sending more of these attacks at high-value targets, because some of the extraneous targets have dropped off a bit," he says.

The scam has not escaped law enforcement attention. In January, an Ohio woman who used forged emails from "AOL security" to swindle America Online subscribers out of their credit card numbers was sentenced to 46 months in prison. And last month 20-year-old Alec Papierniak pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud for using spoofed e-mails to collect PayPal passwords, looting $10,000 from one of his victim's accounts.

Last week the US Department of Justice issued a special report on phishing to acquaint netizens with the warning signs of the spoofed email messages.

The con artists may be taking the threat of criminal prosecution more seriously. In February, Maier says, the phishers exhibited increased sophistication in constructing webpages that obfuscate the path that the purloined information takes to get back to the scammers - the easiest route to tracking them down. "If you look at the code, the people doing this are getting much better at disguising where the information is going," says Maier.

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