NEW YORK—As Internet scams, also known as phishing,
proliferate, companies are sharpening technological tools to
counter them. Education alone, many agree, isn't enough.
Anti-phishing software is apt to soon be added to the arsenal of
digital shields forged to stop spam, viruses and hacking. Security
companies are also building tools for banks and merchants to use
behind the scenes.
Phishing scams have been around for years but have in recent
months become more numerous—and sophisticated.
Scammers now copy and paste Web coding from real sites such as Citibank's to give their fraudulent messages and the sites they
lead to an aura of authenticity.
They register Internet addresses that look real, subbing the
letter "l" with the numeral "1," for instance. A few messages
even carry ads for that aura of authenticity.
Mark Nichols runs an online gift shop and considers himself
Internet savvy. Yet like so many other Web surfers, he got duped by
an e-mail scam anyhow.
A message saying it was from eBay Inc. asked Nichols to submit
his password and other personal information to a Web site. The
e-mail had arrived shortly after Nichols' credit card had expired,
so he didn't suspect the site was phony.
"I was thinking, `You're right, I do need to go update my
account,' and sure enough, I fell for it," said the Crosby, N.D.,
"What used to be a game and a prank has now been recognized as
something that can be lucrative and has attracted organized
efforts," said Bill Harris, chairman of PassMark Security LLC and
former chief executive of PayPal, a frequent phishing target.
The Anti-Phishing Working Group, formed in October by industry
and law enforcement, identified 282 new phishing scams in February,
up from 176 a month earlier. About 70 percent have been traced to
eastern Europe or Asia, said David Jevans, the group's chairman.
A 19-year-old Houston man now faces as many as 15 years in prison
after pleading guilty to opening accounts and making purchases
using information captured through phishing. For the most part,
however, techniques scammers use and their locations abroad make
them difficult to catch.
Jevans said no hard numbers are available on monetary losses
from phishing, which represents only a sliver of overall fraud. The
greater cost, he said, is in consumer confidence: Banks might
suffer if customers shun online banking and insist on using more
In Nichols' case, he realized his error early enough, so he
quickly changed his eBay password. But the scams can be costly.
To fight back, eBay in February added an Account Guard feature
to its toolbar for Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. A green
light appears when users are on a site run by eBay or its PayPal
subsidiary. The light goes red for known fraudulent sites. A
warning also appears any time users try to enter their eBay or
PayPal passwords elsewhere.
Rob Chesnut, eBay's deputy general counsel, said the company
went with technology because education was a tough proposition.
"It's quite easy for spoofers to create a page that looks like
an eBay or PayPal page, so you can't teach users about the look of
a page," he said.
PostX Corp. takes a similar approach, displaying green when
e-mail has been digitally signed and verified, red when it shows
signs of fraud. Others carry yellow.
The company's plug-in tools for browsers and e-mail programs,
slated for release by June, will look for four basic phishing
techniques, including a Web address that appears on-screen as one
thing but has a different site embedded in the link.
In mid-April, EarthLink Inc. plans to release a toolbar of its
own to block users from fake EarthLink sites. The list of bad sites
will be automatically refreshed every few hours.
The numerous efforts can foster confusion. Which toolbar works
for which scam? What color light do I trust?
Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are developing broader systems
for authenticating e-mail, but that will take time.
Chesnut expects greater cooperation sooner.
"Right now, this is the infancy," he said. The goal will be to
produce a single toolbar that does the job. "It doesn't make any
sense for somebody to have 20 toolbars on the system."
Beyond toolbars, PassMark plans to offer a password imaging
system later this year. A banking site could subscribe to PassMark
and randomly assign each customer a different image, such as a cat.
Customers would be instructed never to trust a site purportedly
from that bank unless the personalized image appears.
In recent months, e-mail management company MessageGate Inc.
added technology to analyze e-mail headers for mismatches, such as
a message that claims to be from Bank of America but got routed
through a Russian mail server. Digital Envoy Inc. has a similar
offering out this spring.
In February, MailFrontier Inc. added fraud protection to its
spam-blocking software for the desktop. Gleb Budman, senior
products director for the company, said phishing is tricker than
spam to combat because messages look so real.
Before the fraud folder existed, Budman said, many users
retrieved phishing messages from their spam folders, thinking the
software had made a mistake.
E-mail users flooded with phishing scams welcome the efforts,
though many remain skeptical.
"You create technology to prevent that, but hackers and the bad
guys are just going to one up you," said Don Bangert III, a
freelance programmer in Granite Falls, Wash.
Jeffrey Guilfoyle, a vice president at security company
Solutionary Inc., said that while technology offers a quick fix,
"from a longer-term perspective, education of the user base is
really the only way to do that. Technology is always lagging."
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