Caught in a phishing trap

Rise in online identity fraud has companies on the hook: Educate customers or lose them.

For Steve Krabill, a 33-year-old Oklahoma engineer, the answer to phishing scams is simple: Trust nobody.

Faced with an online test that presents him with 10 different e-mails, some of which are examples of phishing scams, his answer is to label every single one a fake. Three turn out to be the genuine article--but in the engineer's mind, he's passed the test either way.

"Companies I do business with online don't send me e-mails looking for my personal information, it's that easy," said Krabill, who works at Osborn Engineering, a Tulsa-based maker of metal recycling equipment. "I know that I'm not going to get scammed if I don't reply to any of them."

Phishing is one of the fastest-growing forms of personal fraud in the world. While consumers are the most obvious victims, the damage spreads far wider--hurting companies' finances and reputation and potentially undermining consumer confidence in the safety of e-commerce.

"Phishers hijack brands for the purpose of fraud and degrade consumers' trust in those brands. That's what makes phishing so different than other types of online threats," Kim Legelis, director of industry solutions at security software maker Symantec, said.

The scammers typically send out an e-mail that appears to come from a trusted company such as a bank or an e-commerce Web site. The phishing messages attempt to lure people to a bogus Web site, where they're asked to divulge sensitive personal information. The attackers can then use those details to steal money from the victims' accounts.

According to a report from online privacy watchdog Truste, 7 out of 10 people who go online have received phishing e-mails, and 15 percent of those have successfully been duped into providing personal information.

The financial services industry has borne the brunt of those scams, an Anti-Phishing Working Group survey found, with Citibank leading the list of companies targeted. Online businesses such as eBay's Paypal online payment subsidiary and Google's Gmail Web mail operation have also suffered.

"For many of these financial services companies, and undoubtedly for e-commerce providers, the Web is a very important channel for acquiring new business, growing revenue, and mitigating costs for customer service," Legelis said. "If consumers lose confidence in that channel, it will have a wide-ranging negative impact on these businesses."

Companies are paying a hefty amount to fix phishing damage. In many cases, they make good on their customers' losses. Money is also going to efforts to educate customers about fraud prevention, and the cost of polishing up a tarnished brand is hard to estimate.

The threat to business means that's money well spent. In a recent study by e-mail security company MailFrontier, 40 percent of American consumers surveyed said they would switch to a bank or credit card company that offers better protection from online identity theft. Ninety-four percent said it's the responsibility of their financial institution to shield them from phishing and similar scams, and 52 percent felt that their providers are not doing enough to safeguard their information.

The multiple problems caused by phishing do not have a simple solution. Some businesses hope education will lead to more wary customers like Krabill. Others are pinning their hopes on jointly looking for technical solutions, such as address-verification schemes and software filters to sort valid e-mail messages from scams.

Cooperation across the IT and e-commerce industries has led to a number of trade organizations being launched to combat phishing. One is the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), made up of experts from a range

Featured Video
This content is rated TV-MA, and is for viewers 18 years or older. Are you of age?
Sorry, you are not old enough to view this content.

Top 5 Surprise Tech Hits

Sometimes a product may seem like a crazy idea, but it goes on to far exceed expectations. These are the most surprising tech successes.

by Iyaz Akhtar