Monday, June 11, 2007

Thwarting a large-scale phishing attack

In addition to targeting malware, we're interested in combating phishing, a social engineering attack where criminals attempt to lure unsuspecting web surfers into logging into a fake website that looks like a real website, such as eBay, E-gold or an online bank. Following a successful attack, phishers can steal money out of the victims' accounts or take their identities. To protect our users against phishing, we publish a blacklist of known phishing sites. This blacklist is the basis for the anti-phishing features in the latest versions of Firefox and Google Desktop. Although blacklists are necessarily a step behind as phishers move their phishing pages around, blacklists have proved to be reasonably effective.

Not all phishing attacks target sites with obvious financial value. Beginning in mid-March, we detected a five-fold increase in overall phishing page views. It turned out that the phishing pages generating 95% of the new phishing traffic targeted MySpace, the popular social networking site. While a MySpace account does not have any intrinsic monetary value, phishers had come up with ways to monetize this attack. We observed hijacked accounts being used to spread bulletin board spam for some advertising revenue. According to this interview with a phisher, phishers also logged in to the email accounts of the profile owners to harvest financial account information. In any case, phishing MySpace became profitable enough (more than phishing more traditional targets) that many of the active phishers began targeting it.

Interestingly, the attack vector for this new attack appeared to be MySpace itself, rather than the usual email spam. To observe the phishers' actions, we fed them the login information for a dummy MySpace account. We saw that when phishers compromised a MySpace account, they added links to their phishing page on the stolen profile, which would in turn result in additional users getting compromised. Using a quirk of the CSS supported in MySpace profiles, the phishers injected these links invisibly as see-through images covering compromised profiles. Clicking anywhere on an infected profile, including on links that appeared normal, redirected the user to a phishing page. Here's a sample of some CSS code injected into the "About Me" section of an affected profile:

<a style="text-decoration:none;position:
absolute;top:1px;left:1px;" href=""><img
style="border-width:0px;width:1200px; height:650px;"

In addition to contributing to the viral growth of the phishing attack, linking directly off of real MySpace content added to the appearance of legitimacy of these phishing pages. In fact, we received thousands of complaints from confused users along the lines of "Why won't it let any of my friends look at my pictures?" regarding our warnings on these phishing pages, suggesting that even an explicit warning was not enough to protect many users. The effectiveness of the attack and the increasing sophistication of the phishing pages, some of which were hosted on botnets and were near perfect duplications of MySpace's login page, meant that we needed to switch tactics to combat this new threat.

In late March, we reached out to MySpace to see what we could do to help. We provided lists of the top phishing sites and our anti-phishing blacklist to MySpace so that they could disable compromised accounts with links to those sites. Unfortunately, many of the blocked users did not remove the phishing links when they reactivated their accounts, so the attacks continued to spread. On April 19, MySpace updated their server software so that they could disable bad links in users' profiles without requiring any user action or altering any other profile content. Overnight, overall phishing traffic dropped by a factor of five back to the levels observed in early March. While MySpace phishing continues at much lower volumes, phishers are beginning to move on to new targets.

Things you can do to help end phishing and Internet fraud
  • Learn to recognize and avoid phishing. The Anti-Phishing Working Group has a good list of recommendations.

  • Update your software regularly and run an anti-virus program. If a cyber-criminal gains control of your computer through a virus or a software security flaw, he doesn't need to resort to phishing to steal your information.

  • Use different passwords on different sites and change them periodically. Phishers routinely try to log in to high-value targets, like online banking sites, with the passwords they steal for lower-value sites, like webmail and social networking services.

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