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A massive rise in phishing attacks this year may lead on to customised email security attacks targeted specifically at individual or small groups of companies, according to email security firm MessageLabs.

In September 2003 MessageLabs intercepted 279 phishing emails. In September 2004, it netted more than two million. So far this year, MessageLabs has intercepted more than 18 million phishing-related emails. Recently, phishing emails have been designed to include malicious code so that online banking details can be captured without having to persuade a user to visit a maliciously constructed website. The perpetrators of phishing attacks have also attempted to dupe unsuspecting users into becoming middlemen for money laundering operations via spamvertised job offers.

Along with the huge increase in phishing, spam and virus volumes also increased this year, although much less dramatically. In 2004, one in every 16 emails MessageLabs scanned was infected with a virus, compared to one in every 33 emails for 2003. MyDoom-A was the single biggest virus nuisance this year. Seventy-three per cent of emails scanned by MessageLabs this year was spam, compared with 40 per cent last year.

E-mail attacks get personal

Tailored malicious activity - ranging from Denial of Service (DoS) attacks targeted at blackmailing online gaming sites through to threats that send out child pornography in the name of organisation - have been used by extensively cyber-criminals this year. Mass defacements and the like, which used to be the staple of cracker activity, are still taking place, but have receded in importance. Malicious code attacks may follow a similar pattern as virus writers move on from mass mailing worms to the development of targeted malware.

MessageLabs predicts that Trojans and other malicious code specifically developed to compromise particular organisations will become a greater threat next year. Mark Sunner, chief technology officer, said the singling out of certain companies to be the victim of phishing attacks "could signal the beginning of a wider trend. Already particular businesses are threatened and blackmailed, indicating a shift from the random, scattergun approach, to customised attacks designed to take advantage of the perceived weaknesses of some businesses."

Getting to grips with regulatory compliance will be major issue in 2005, according to MessageLabs. Laws surrounding financial reporting and disclosure of information require companies to have policies for monitoring, securing and storing all business transactions: including email and instant messaging. "Compliance is already a big issue, and many firms have yet to grasp the impact it will have on the administration, management and security of email," Sunner said.

A breakdown of stats, alongside trend analysis, can be found in MessageLabs' Intelligence Annual Email Management and Security Report 2004 (PDF). ®

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