Daily Archives: 2009-04-23

Temporal Correlations between Spam and Phishing Websites

Richard Clayton and I have been studying phishing website take-down for some time. We monitored the availability of phishing websites, finding that while most phishing websites are removed with a day or two, a substantial minority remain for much longer. We later found that one of the main reasons why so many websites slip through the cracks is that the take-down companies responsible for removal refuse to share their URL lists with each other.

One nagging question remained, however. Do long-lived phishing websites cause any harm? Would removing them actually help? To get that answer, we had to bring together data on the timing of phishing spam transmission (generously shared by Cisco IronPort) with our existing data on phishing website lifetimes. In our paper co-authored with Henry Stern and presented this week at the USENIX LEET Workshop in Boston, we describe how a substantial portion of long-lived phishing websites continue to receive new spam until the website is removed. For instance, fresh spam continues to be sent out for 75% of phishing websites alive after one week, attracting new victims. Furthermore, around 60% of phishing websites still alive after a month keep receiving spam advertisements.

Consequently, removal of websites by the banks (and the specialist take-down companies they hire) is important. Even when the sites stay up for some time, there is value in continued efforts to get them removed, because this will limit the damage.

However, as we have pointed out before, the take-down companies cause considerable damage by their continuing refusal to share data on phishing attacks with each other, despite our proposals addressing their competitive concerns. Our (rough) estimate of the financial harm due to longer-lived phishing websites was $330 million per year. Given this new evidence of persistent spam campaigns, we are now more confident of this measure of harm.

There are other interesting insights discussed in our new paper. For instance, phishing attacks can be broken down into two main categories: ordinary phishing hosted on compromised web servers and fast-flux phishing hosted on a botnet infrastructure. It turns out that fast-flux phishing spam is more tightly correlated with the uptime of the associated phishing host. Most spam is sent out around the time the fast-flux website first appears and stops once the website is removed. For phishing websites hosted on compromised web servers, there is much greater variation between the time a website appears and when the spam is sent. Furthermore, fast-flux phishing spam was 68% of the total email spam detected by IronPort, despite this being only 3% of all the websites.

So there seems to be a cottage industry of fairly disorganized phishing attacks, with perhaps a few hundred people involved. Each compromises a small number of websites, while sending a small amount of spam. Conversely there are a small number of organized gangs who use botnets for hosting, send most of the spam, and are extremely efficient on every measure we consider. We understand that the police are concentrating their efforts on the second set of criminals. This appears to be a sound decision.