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Why phishing reels punters in

User stupidity, natch

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To tech savvy punters most phishing sites are obviously bogus. But a recent study by academics at Harvard and Berkeley reveal that 23 per cent of users only look at the content of sites when deciding whether they are legitimate or not. The presence or absence of SSL certificates and the url of sites doesn't enter into the decision of these potential dupes.

The study, Why phishing attacks work (PDF), suggests that greater user education and improved technical safeguards in upcoming browsers (both Firefox 2.0 and IE7 promise anti-phishing features) is needed in order to bring the problem of online fraud under control.

The usability study involved only a small sample of 22 users who were shown 20 websites and asked to determine which ones were fraudulent.

"We found that 23 per cent of the participants did not look at browser-based cues such as the address bar, status bar and the security indicators, leading to incorrect choices 40 per cent of the time," the researchers reports. "We also found that some visual deception attacks can fool even the most sophisticated users."

The research cites separate academic studies that suggest some phishing attacks convince up to five per cent of their recipients to provide sensitive information. Another study suggested that even when toolbars were used to notify users of potential security problems, users were tricked into providing information 34 per cent of the time.

The aim of the Harvard and Berkeley study is to help security pros better understand the attack strategies of phishing fraudsters so more effective defensive strategies can be formulated.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group received reports of 9,715 phishing websites mimicking 101 brands in January 2006, the latest month where records are available. ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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