The massive phishing scam broken up by US federal authorities this week is only a hint at what many say is an insidious and growing problem on the Internet.
Federal authorities on Wednesday indicted 53 people in the U.S on various charges related to a phishing scheme that victimized thousands of customers of two major U.S. banks. Authorities in Egypt arrested another 47 people there on the same charges.
The bust, dubbed "Operation Phish Phry," was described by the FBI as the largest ever cyber-crime investigation and they held it up as a shining example of international cooperation in the realm of cybersecurity.
But as important and impressive as it was, the arrests barely scratch the surface of the phishing problem , according to several who have been tracking the issue for years.
"It certainly is important," said Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), whose members include Walmart, Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay and dozens of others. "Getting 100 people indicted all at one time is definitely a real success for law enforcement. It sends a message to criminals that they are not immune and that they can be tracked down and jailed, even if they are not in the U.S."
But the arrests are not going to "materially impact" the problem, Jevans said. After a small dip last year, phishing activity has picked up again and is rapidly climbing back to record levels in terms of unique phishing sites and targets.
In June, the number of unique phishing Websites detected by the APWG stood at 49,084 -- the highest level since a record 55,643 phishing Web sites were spied in April 2007. "The problem continues to grow and get worse," said Jevans, who estimates that as many as four billion phishing e-mails are sent across the Internet daily.
Ominously, it is not just consumers that falli victim; corporations and government organizations are often the subject of highly targeted "spear phishing" campaigns designed to shake loose financial and other sensitive information.
Phishing is a form of social engineering in which attackers send e-mails made to look like legitimate correspondence from reputable institutions and even trusted individuals from within an organization. Victims are directed to Web sites that look authentic, but are actually fakes. Once there, they are asked to enter information that can later be used to break into accounts or to commit identity theft.
In the case of the phishing ring broken up this week, for instance, attackers systematically transferred thousands of dollars from accounts they gained access to with legitimate usernames and passwords.
What makes phishing so hard to deal with is that attacks can be launched from anywhere in the world by people with little to no technical skills. Tracking down the source of an attack can involve communicating with numerous ISPs in different countries, different time zones and using different languages, said Alexander Southwell, a former cyber-crime prosecutor and attorney with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Most also operate under different laws and have no obligation to respond to a request for information from U.S. authorities, Southwell said.