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Phishing still on the decline, despite Whois privacy

Kevin Murphy, March 5, 2019, Domain Policy

The number of detected phishing attacks almost halved last year, despite the fact that new Whois privacy rules have made it cheaper for attackers to hide their identities.

There were 138,328 attacks in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, down from 151,014 in Q3, 233,040 in Q2, and 263,538 in Q1.

That’s a huge decline from the start of the year, which does not seem to have been slowed up by the introduction in May of the General Data Protection Regulation and ICANN’s Temp Spec, which together force the redaction of most personal data from public Whois records.

The findings could be used by privacy advocates to demonstrate that Whois redaction has not lead to an increase in cybercrime, as their opponents had predicted.

But the data may be slightly misleading.

APWG notes that it can only count the attacks it can find, and that phishers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they attempt to avoid detection. The group said in a press release:

There is growing concern that the decline may be due to under-detection. The detection and documentation of some phishing URLs has been complicated by phishers obfuscating phishing URLs with techniques such as Web-spider deflection schemes – and by employing multiple redirects in spam-based phishing campaigns, which take users (and automated detectors) from an email lure through multiple URLs on multiple domains before depositing the potential victim at the actual phishing site.

It also speculates that criminals once involved in phishing may have moved on to “more specialized and lucrative forms of e-crime”.

The Q4 report (pdf) also breaks down phishing attacks by TLD, though comparisons here are difficult because APWG doesn’t always release this data.

The group found .com to still have the most phishing domains — 2,098 of the 4,485 unique domains used in attacks, or about 47%. According to Verisign’s own data, .com only has 40% market share of total registered domains.

But new, 2012-round gTLDs had phishing levels below their market share — 4.95% of phishing on a 6.83% share. This is actually up compared to the 3% recorded by APWG in Q3 2017, the most recent available data I could find.

Only two of the top 20 most-abused TLDs were new gTLDs — .xyz and .online, which had just 70 attack domains between them. That’s good news for .xyz, which in its early days saw 10 times as much phishing abuse.

After .com, the most-abused TLD was .pw, the ccTLD for Palau run by Radix as an unrestricted pseudo-gTLD. It had 374 attack domains in Q4, APWG said.

Other ccTLDs with relatively high numbers included several African zones run as freebies by Freenom, as well as the United Kingdom’s .uk and Brazil’s .br.

Phishing is only one form of cybercrime, of course, and ICANN’s own data shows that when you take into account spam, new gTLDs are actually hugely over-represented.

According to ICANN’s inaugural Domain Abuse Activity Reporting report (pdf), which covers January, over half of cybercrime domains are in the new gTLDs.

That’s almost entirely due to spam. One in 10 of the threats ICANN analyzed were spam, as identified by the likes of SpamHaus and SURBL. DAAR does not include ccTLD data.

The takeaway here appears to be that spammers love new gTLDs, but phishers are far less keen.

ICANN did not break down which gTLDs were the biggest offenders, but it did say that 52% of threats found in new gTLDs were found in just 10 new gTLDs.

This reluctance to name and shame the worst offenders prompted one APWG director, former ICANN senior security technologist Dave Piscitello, to harshly criticize his former employer in a personal blog post last month.

Could crypto solve the Whois crisis?

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

Could there be a cryptographic solution to some of the problems caused by GDPR’s impact on public Whois databases? Security experts think so.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed that hashing personal information and publishing it could help security researchers carry on using Whois to finger abusive domain names.

In a letter to ICANN, APWG recently said that such a system would allow registries and registrars to keep their customers’ data private, but would still enable researchers to identify names registered in bulk by spammers and the like.

“Redacting all registration records which were formerly publicly available has unintended and undesirable consequences to the very citizens and residents that electronic privacy legislation intends to protect,” the letter (pdf) says.

Under the proposed system, each registry or registrar would generate a private key for itself. For each Whois field containing private data, the data would be added to the key and hashed using a standard algorithm such as SHA-512.

For items such as physical addresses, all the address-related fields would be concatenated, with the key, before hashing the combined value.

The resulting hash — a long string of gibberish characters — would then be published in the public Whois instead of the [REDACTED] notice mandated by current ICANN policy.

Security researchers would then be able to identify domains belonging to the same purported registrant by searching for domains containing the same hash values.

It’s not a perfect solution. Because each registry or registrar would have their own key, the same registrant would have different hash values in different TLDs, so it would not be possible to search across TLDs.

But that may not be a huge problem, given that bad guys tend to bulk-register names in TLDs that have special offers on.

The hashing system may also be beneficial to interest groups such as trademark owners and law enforcement, which also look for registration patterns when tracking down abuse registrants.

The proposal would create implementation headaches for registries and registrars — which would actually have to build the crypto into their systems — and compliance challenges for ICANN.

The paper notes that ICANN would have to monitor its contracted parties — not all of which may necessarily be unfriendly to spammers — to make sure they’re hashing the data correctly.

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.

New gTLD phishing still tiny, but .xyz sees most of it

New gTLDs are not yet being widely used to carry out phishing runs, but most such attacks are concentrated in .xyz.

That’s one of the conclusions of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, which today published its report for the second half of 2014.

Phishing was basically flat in the second half of the year, with 123,972 recorded attacks.

The number of domains used to phish was 95,321, up 8.4% from the first half of the year.

However, the number of domains that were registered maliciously in order to phish (as opposed to compromised domains) was up sharply — by 20% to 27,253 names.

In the period, 272 TLDs were used, but almost 54% of the attacks used .com domains. In terms of maliciously registered domains, .com fared worse, with over 62% share.

According to APWG, 75% of maliciously registered domains were in .com, .tk, .pw, .cf and .net.

Both .tk and .cf are Freenom-administered free ccTLDs (for Tokelau and the Central African Republic) while low-cost .pw — “plagued” by Chinese phishers — is run by Radix for Palau.

New gTLDs accounted for just 335 of the maliciously registered domains — 1.2% of the total.

That’s about half of what you’d expect given new gTLDs’ share of the overall domain name industry.

Twenty-four new gTLDs had malicious registrations, but .xyz saw most of them. APWG said:

Almost two-thirds of the phishing in the new gTLDs — 288 domains — was concentrated in the .XYZ registry. (Of the 335 maliciously registered domains, 274 were in .XYZ.) This is the first example of malicious registrations clustering in one new gTLD, and we are seeing more examples in early 2015.

XYZ.com aggressively promoted cheap or free .xyz names during the period, but APWG said that only four .xyz phishing names were registered via freebie partner Network Solutions.

In fact, APWG found that most of its phishing names were registered via Xin Net and used to attack Chinese brands.

But, normalizing the numbers to take account of different market shares, .xyz shapes up poorly when compared to .com and other TLDs, in terms of maliciously registered domains. APWG said:

XYZ had a phishing-per-10,000-domains score of 3.6, which was just slightly above the average of 3.4 for all TLDs, and lower than .COM’s score of 4.7. Since most phishing domains in .XYZ were fraudulently registered and most in .COM compromised, .XYZ had a significantly higher incidence of malicious domain registrations per 10,000 coming in at 3.4 versus 1.4 for .COM.

APWG said that it expects the amount of phishing to increase in new gTLDs as registries, finding themselves in a crowded marketplace, compete aggressively on price.

It also noted that the amount of non-phishing abuse in new gTLDs is “much higher” than the phishing numbers would suggest:

Tens of thousands of domains in the new gTLDs are being consumed by spammers, and are being blocklisted by providers such as Spamhaus and SURBL. So while relatively few new gTLD domains have been used for phishing, the total number of them being used maliciously is much higher.

The number of maliciously registered domains containing a variation on the targeted brand was more or less flat, up from 6.6% to 6.8%.

APWG found that 84% of all phishing attacks target Chinese brands and Chinese internet users.

The APWG report can be downloaded here.

UPDATE: XYZ.com CEO Daniel Negari responded to the report by pointing out that phishing attacks using .xyz have a much shorter duration compared to other TLDs, including .com.

According to the APWG report, the average uptime of an attack using .xyz is just shy of 12 hours, compared to almost 28 hours in .com. The median uptime was a little over six hours in .xyz, compared to 10 hours in .com.

Negari said that this was due to the registry’s “aggressive detection and takedowns”. He said XYZ has three full-time employees devoted to handling abuse.

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.

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