Fight Phishing with Flagfox for Firefox

A Firefox extension shows where a website is located.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
3 min read

A big part of phishing scams and identity theft is fooling people into thinking they are on one website when they are actually somewhere else. The technical tricks to accomplish this include lookalike and phony domain names, zapping the hosts file, tricks with URLs and assorted attacks on DNS servers. What's a normal person to do?

Flagfox is an unobtrusive extension for the Firefox web browser that offers some assistance by placing a flag in the bottom right corner of the Firefox window. The flag (shown below) indicates the country where the website physically resides.

If you don't recognize the flag, hover the mouse over it and a yellow pop-up window (below) displays the IP address of the website and the country where it resides. If you normally deal with a bank, brokerage or credit union in, for example, the United States, and one day you notice the flag is from another country, you are not at the website you thought you were.

Of course this only goes so far. If a legitimate website is in New Jersey and a phony, phishing copy of it resides in New Mexico, the flag will still be American. Before doing anything sensitive, such as banking, click on the flag to open a new tab showing a map and more precise location information such as the city and state.

This is the physical location of the website, not of the organization or person represented by the website. Although in the case of CNET and CNET.com they are the same, this is not normally the case. The New York Times, for example, runs their website out of Colorado. The website of another New York City newspaper, the Daily News is in Texas. Our third local newspaper, the New York Post, hosts their site in Massachusetts.

In all but two cases that I tried, Flagfox was able to pinpoint a location based on the IP address. However, it didn't know where CNN.com or TomsHardware.com were located.

The point is to be aware of where the important websites that you deal with are located. Customers of Citibank, for example, would be safer if they verified that the website was in New York City before signing in.

But where are the bank websites? Only the banks know for sure. For example, my computer showed Citibank.com as being in New York City, but if my machine was compromised, I could be looking at a scam site imitating Citibank while the real site is elsewhere.

For Flagfox to be most effective, banks, brokerages and credit unions would have to publicize the physical location of their websites. I'll contact a few and see what they say...

Update July 2, 2008: If Flagfox can't locate a website based on the IP address, there are other options. Two websites that I've used often for this are www.ip-adress.com/ipaddresstolocation and www.ip2location.com/demo.aspx.

For more on this same subject, see my next posting Verifying legitimate bank websites
I recently wrote about another Firefox tweak Firefox 3: Expand the Site Identification button on HTTPS pages which also helps with verifying the true identity of a website.
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