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Phishing morphs into pharming

Nascent threat worries security researchers

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Fraudsters and mischief makers are developing more insidious techniques for tricking users into visiting bogus websites. Rather than using spam to con prospective victims into clicking their way to illicit sites - so called phishing attacks - internet ne'er-do-wells are using DNS poisoning or domain hijacks to redirect users to dodgy urls.

The trick - dubbed pharming - is potentially more sinister than phishing because it avoids the need to coax users into responding to junk email alerts. The attacks also occur across a broader front, potentially misdirecting all email and web traffic away from victims. Gerhard Eschelbeck, CTO of Qualys, cited the recent hijack of New York ISP Panix as typical of the type of threat that might emerge. Eschelbeck reckons the use of redirection attacks remains largely the domain of mischief makers. Other security commentators ascribe darker motives. "Pharming is a next-generation phishing attack," Scott Chasin, CTO of MX Logic, told Government Computer News.

Both experts agree that pharming is simply a new application of well-known security weaknesses. It highlights security loopholes that can only be partly addressed by better browser security. Improved browser security to prevent address spoofing or crypto plug-in to verify the digital certificates of sites might help. Banking sites could adopt two-factor authentication as a comprehensive defence. More fundamentally, the nascent threat of pharming re-emphasises the need to revamp DNS systems and domain registration that critics argue is long overdue. ®

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