Phishing: What's Spam Got to Do With It?

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Phishing is like spam in only one respect. They both come across email.In all other ways they're quite different.

People sending spam are trying to sell you something. People sendingphishing attacks are trying to steal something from you. One type ofcommunication is from a marketer -- whether legitimate or not. The otheris from a thief. Further, spam is quite obviously spam, but phishing isgetting increasingly difficult to detect. According to Word Spy, phishingis defined as: 'Creating a replica of an existing Web page to fool a userinto submitting personal, financial, or password data.'

Despite what's at stake, many are ill prepared to deal with theincreasing phishing threat. A common mistake that IT administrators makeis to assume their spam solutions are equipped to handle phishing.

Though phishing comes through traditional email channels, it oftenbypasses gateways and spam filters by exploiting trusted domains andrelationships. If you rely on authentication, a phisher who hijacks atrusted Web site can easily penetrate your system. If you operate withwhite lists and black lists, a hacker who has harvested those lists cansend phishing attacks from a white list address. The Anti-PhishingWorking Group (APWG) reports that more than 3,326 phishing sites wereoperating as of May 2005, with more than 107 trusted brands having beenhijacked to perpetrate attacks.

''People feel that if they have a spam solution, they're protected fromphishing, but that's not the case,'' says Jordan Ritter, CTO ofCloudmark, an anti-spam solutions company based in San Francisco. ''Thenature of the problem, the attacks, and the form they take are incrediblydifferent. Period. The way phishers operate and the way they send theirmail is different, as well. There's no grey area there. They're stealingyour money, assets, and information.

''For that reason, they have a lot more to lose, and move between systemsquickly. They're a lot more sophisticated in taking advantage of securityvulnerabilities, whereas spammers are trying to direct you to someone'sWeb site to buy something.''

It becomes an even more daunting threat when you consider that a majorityof corporate IT and security administrators must defend more than onesource of email.

Different Strategies

Companies that allow users to access their personal email through freeemail service providers must ensure that they've also added protectivemeasures to that avenue of communication. The transient and seeminglyinvisible nature of phishing makes it a highly effective method ofgetting by generic spam solutions.

''Unlike spam, it's not something that you're going to be able to measurein terms of mail flow and volume and complaints,'' says Ritter. ''Whenyou get stung with a phishing attack, you don't really know it. It's notan easy thing for the enterprise to measure. However, it's still a veryreal problem and when it relates to security, instead of simply mailadministration, the corporation has a lot more to lose by not protectingits users. From that aspect, it's perhaps a greater liability for them.''

Clearly, traditional spam solutions aren't enough. Without obvious tracesof the incidents, and the sophistication of the attacks increasing, whatmeasures can a company take to effectively avoid becoming a victim?

''Anti-phishing is the newest area of Internet security,'' says theAPWG's Dave Jevans. ''There are a number of companies providinginnovative products and services in this area, but it's still a new andevolving science. Also, internal education can be an important factor.This is especially true when educating employees about avoiding internalphishing, i.e., attacks designed to spoof IT administrators and stealaccess credentials to internal systems.''

Over the past few years, it's been shown that layered security providesthe highest form of defense in depth. The same is true when dealing withorganizational phishing. Taking a proactive approach to bolstering theemail infrastructure makes it much more difficult to find a way into yournetwork.

The IT director of a popular Northern California Web services portal (whodeclined to be identified) provides a good example of having implementedthis methodology.

''As a company, there are about four steps that we take,'' says the ITdirector. ''The first is corporate-wide user education to define phishingand what it looks like. The second thing we do is subscribe to some ofthe phishing notification newswires, and when we receive word of thelatest phishing attacks, we'll assess them to see if we need to notifythe entire staff. Third, we are actively evaluating several vendors'anti-phishing related plug-ins in the lab.

''Lastly, though it's really the front of the architecture,implementation of appropriate tools is critical,'' the IT director adds.''While we have drawn a distinction between spam and phishing, one of ourinstalled vendor products has the ability to catch them both. When I lookat my personal email, outside of our network system, I see plenty ofphishing. When I look at my mail inside our network, it's apparent thatwe do not get phished in the corporate system. We have indeed built anumber of different layers behind that, but I can't remember the lasttime a phish got through our system.''

Approaching the threat from various avenues provides a more unifieddefense mechanism against a shape-shifting enemy. Through a combinationof policy, process, education, and tools, it is possible to build abetter fortress. Yet with every security challenge, there is no magicbullet.

Unfortunately for corporate America, there always will be so much outthere for criminals to take advantage of.

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