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ICANN joins anti-phishing group board

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s VP of security has joined the board of directors of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

Dave Piscitello is one of three new APWG board members, arriving as the group expands its board from two people to five.

APWG said the expansion “is recognition of the growing complexity and scale of Internet crime today and the challenges in responding to this global threat.”

In a press release, it noted that targeted phishing attacks are said to be the root cause of the data thefts that may or may not have influenced the US presidential election last year.

The other two new directors are Brad Wardman of PayPal and Pat Cain of The Cooper Cain Group, a security consulting firm (a different bloke to the similarly named Pat Kane of Verisign).

APWG is an independent, public-private coalition that collects and publishes data about phishing attack trends and advice for how to defend against them.

Part of this work entails tracking how many domain names are involved in phishing, and in which TLDs.

The APWG board also includes chair David Jevans of Proofpoint and secretary-general Peter Cassidy.

Phishers prefer free ccTLDs to new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2014, Domain Registries

Domains in free and cheap ccTLDs are much more likely to host phishing attacks than new gTLDs.

That’s one of the conclusions of the latest report of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, which found that Freenom’s re-purposed African ccTLDs were particularly risky.

The first-half 2014 report found 22,679 “maliciously registered” domains used in phishing attacks. That’s flat on the second half of 2013 and almost double the first half of 2013.

Only roughly a quarter of the domains used in phishing had been registered for the purpose. The rest were pointing to compromised web servers.

On new gTLDs, the APWG said:

As of this writing, the new gTLD program has not resulted in a bonanza of phishing. A few phishers experimented with new gTLD domain names, perhaps to see if anyone noticed. But most of the new gTLD domains that were used for phishing were actually on compromised web sites.

The new gTLDs .agency, .center, .club, .email and .tips were the only ones to see any maliciously registered phishing domains in the half — each had one — according to the report.

The APWG speculates quite reasonably that the relatively high price of most new gTLD domains has kept phishers away but warns that this could change as competition pushes prices down.

While .com hosts 54% of all phishing domains, small ccTLDs that give away domains for free or cheap are disproportionately likely to have such domains in their zones, the report reveals.

The Freenom-operated ccTLDs .cf (Central African Republic), .ml (Mali) and .ga (Gabon) top the table of most-polluted TLDs, alongside PW Registry’s .pw (Palau).

Freenom, which also runs .tk, offers free domains, while PW Registry has a very low registry fee.

APWG measures the risk of phishing by TLD by counting phishing domains per 10,000 registered names, where the median score is 4.7 and .com’s score is 4.1.

.cf tops the charts with 320.8, followed by .ml with 118.9, .pw with 122, .ga with 42,9 and .th (Thailand) with 27.5. These number include compromised as well as phisher-registered domains.

Read the APWG report here.

Phishing domains double in 2013

Kevin Murphy, September 20, 2013, Domain Tech

The number of domain names registered for phishing attacks doubled in the first half of the year, according to the latest data from the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

The APWG identified 53,685 phishing domains, of which 12,173 are believed to have been registered by phishers. The remainder belonged to compromised web servers.

This 12,173 number — up from 5,835 in the year-ago period — is the important one for the domain name industry, as it is there that registries and registrars have the ability to make a difference.

“The increase is due to a sudden uptick in domain registrations by Chinese phishers,” the APWG said in its Domain Name Use and Trends 1H2013 report (pdf). Chinese targets accounted for 8,240 (68%) of the registered domains.

This works out to about 66 maliciously registered domains per day on average, or less than half a percent of the total number of domains registered across all TLDs daily.

According to the APWG, the number of phishing domains that actually contain a brand or a variation of a brand is smaller still, at 1,244. That’s flat on the second half of 2012.

It works out to about seven new trademark-infringing phishing domain names per day that a brand owner somewhere in the world (though probably China) has to deal with.

APWG reiterated what it has said in previous reports:

most maliciously registered domain names offered nothing to confuse a potential victim. Placing brand names or variations thereof in the domain name itself is not a favored tactic, since brand owners are proactively scanning Internet zone files for their brand names. As we have observed in the past, the domain name itself usually does not matter to phishers, and a domain name of any meaning, or no meaning at all, in any TLD, will usually do. Instead, phishers often place brand names in subdomains or subdirectories.

Only 2% of phishing attacks use cybersquatted domain names

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2012, Domain Registries

The number of cybersquatted domain names being used for phishing is falling sharply and currently stands at just 2% of attacks, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

The APWG’s first-half 2012 report (pdf) identified 64,204 phishing domains in total.

Of those, the group believes that only 7,712 (12%) were actually registered by the phishers themselves. The rest belonged to innocent third parties and had been compromised.

That’s a steep drop from 12,895 domains in the second half of 2011 and 14,650 in the first half of 2011.

Of the 7,712 phisher-owned domains, about 66% were being use to phish Chinese targets, according to the APWG.

The group’s research found only 1,350 that contained a brand name or a misspelling of a brand name.

That’s down from 2,232 domains in the second-half of 2011, representing just 2% of all phishing domains and 17% of phisher-owned domains.

The report states:

Most maliciously registered domain strings offered nothing to confuse a potential victim. Placing brand names or variations thereof in the domain name itself is not a favored tactic, since brand owners are proactively scanning Internet zone files for such names.

As we have observed in the past, the domain name itself usually does not matter to phishers, and a domain name of any meaning, or no meaning at all, in any TLD, will usually do.

Instead, phishers almost always place brand names in subdomains or subdirectories. This puts the misleading string somewhere in the URL, where potential victims may see it and be fooled. Internet users are rarely knowledgeable enough to be able to pick out the “base” or true domain name being used in a URL.

Taken as a percentage of attacks, brand-jacking is clearly a pretty low-occurrence offence, according to the APWG’s numbers.

In absolute numbers, it works out to about 7.5 domain names per day that are being use to phish and contain a variation of the brand name being targeted.

Unsurprisingly, the APWG found that Freedom Registry’s .tk — which offers free registration — is the TLD being abused most often to register domains for phishing attacks.

More than half of the phisher-owned domains were in .tk, according to the report.

Will new gTLDs really increase phishing?

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2011, Domain Policy

The US Federal Trade Commission has come out swinging against ICANN’s new generic top-level domains program, saying it will increase online fraud and should be scaled back.

In an open letter to ICANN’s top brass yesterday, the FTC’s four commissioners claimed that “the dramatic introduction of new gTLDs poses significant risks to consumers”.

Saying that more gTLDs will make it easier for scammers to acquire domain names confusingly similar to existing brands, the commissioners said the program should be rolled out as a limited pilot.

The FTC commissioners wrote (pdf):

A rapid, exponential expansion of gTLDs has the potential to magnify both the abuse of the domain name system and the corresponding challenges we encounter in tracking down Internet fraudsters. In particular, the proliferation of existing scams, such as phishing, is likely to become a serious challenge given the infinite opportunities that scam artists will now have at their fingertips. Fraudsters will be able to register misspellings of businesses, including financial institutions, in each of the new gTLDs, create copycat websites, and obtain sensitive consumer data with relative ease before shutting down the site and launching a new one.

The letter demands better Whois accuracy enforcement, better ICANN compliance programs, and a cap on approved new gTLDs in the first round perhaps as low as a couple dozen.

The FTC’s claims that new gTLDs will increase phishing may not be supported by reality, however.

The latest data (pdf) from the Anti-Phishing Working Group shows that in the first half of the year only 18% of domain names used in phishing attacks were registered by the attacker.

That was down from 28% in the second half of 2010. Phishers are much more likely to compromise a domain belonging to somebody else – by hacking a web server, for example.

Of the 14,650 maliciously registered domains 10,444 (70%) were used to phish Chinese targets, “overwhelmingly” the e-commerce site Taobao.com, the APWG found.

Furthermore, only 2% of these domains – just 1,816 over six months – were judged to have been registered due to their confusing similarity with the brands they target.

The APWG said (emphasis in the original):

These are the lowest numbers we have observed in the last past four years, and show that using domain names containing brand strings has fallen further out of favor among phishers.

the domain name itself usually does not matter to phishers, and a domain name of any meaning, or no meaning at all, in any TLD, will usually do. Instead, phishers almost always place brand names in subdomains or subdirectories

The APWG found only one gTLD that ICANN has introduced – .info, with 4.5% – in its top ten phishing TLDs. The .com space accounts for 48.9% of all phishing domains.

Will the increase in the number of gTLDs reverse these trends? The FTC seems to think so, but the claims in its letter appear to be based largely on guesswork and fear rather than data.

I suspect that the FTC’s letter is more concerned with ICANN’s ongoing bilateral talks with registrars over law enforcement-demanded amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

These talks are completely separate and distinct from the new gTLDs program policies, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen them being repeatedly conflated by US lawmakers, and now the FTC.

This may be ignorance, but it could just as well be an attempt to apply political pressure on ICANN to make sure the RAA talks produce the results law enforcement agencies want to see.

ICANN does not want to be forced into an embarrassing retreat on its hard-fought gTLD expansion. By producing a strong RAA, it could deflect some of the concerns about the program.