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Phishers and security firms in malware 'arms race'

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Conventional phishing attacks launched via spam messages are becoming eclipsed by sophisticated malware designed to steal identities, according to a study by Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG). APWG's July 2005 phishing reports adds that fraudsters are developing approaches specially designed to neutralise counter-phishing technologies.

APWG researchers reported a "marked increase" in screenscraper technology by phishers, an approach designed to counter graphical keyboard systems sometimes used by banks to thwart conventional key-logging Trojans. When a consumer selects a character on the graphical keyboard using mouse clicks, the screenscraper takes a snapshot of the screen and sends it to the phishers' server, in one example intercepted by the researchers. Despite the emergence of this more sophisticated technique keylogging Trojans remain a popular option. There were some 174 phishing-based Trojans detected in July, up from 154 in June. The majority of these Trojans lay in wait on sites hosted in either Brazil or the US.

"The technological contest between phisher and counter-phisher is well and truly underway," said APWG Chairman David Jevans. "It is a contest of escalation."

Around 14,135 unique phishing reports were recorded by APWG in July, down from 15,050 in June. In July 2005, 71 brands were reported as being phished, down from a high of 107 different brands being phished in May 2005. Financial institutions made up 86 per cent of all phishing targets, down slightly from a recent high of 91 per cent. And it's not just the big names that are targeted any more. Phishers are beginning to hit smaller financial institutions and ISPs.

APWG Secretary General Peter Cassidy, obviously a bit of a film buff, finds analogies in the contrasting roles of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock's Rear Window to explain changes in phishing tactics. "Our hope was that as the large financial institutions gained expertise in thwarting and deflecting phishing attacks, phishers and their spam-based schemes would become ineffective as probabilities of landing phishing mails into inboxes of small institutions' customers decreased their intake of user credentials," he said.

"Instead, phishers have employed Internet marketing practices of list creation and affinity marketing to target and leverage the trust of small institutions. That is a significant part of the new play in the American context. The community thrift enjoys a special place in the American psyche and pantheon. Few other institutions have movies dedicated to them played every Christmas, starring a pre-Hitchcock Jimmy Stewart. Phishers are trying to use that trust now against them."

The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) report on the latest trends in phishing fraud can be found here (PDF). ®

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