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The myth of the Ninja Hacker

Researchers shed light on the dark corners of the Internet where phisher often lurk

Washington D.C. -- On Wednesday, in a talk at Black Hat D.C. 2008, two researchers set out to see whether phishing sites were created by the "Einsteinian, ninja hackers that the media makes them out to be."

In a talk titled "Bad Sushi: Beating Phishers at their own game," Nitesh Dhanjani and Billy Rios found not a sophisticated gang of elite coders, but hundreds of bad coders all copying one another, and often stealing from each other.

Dhanjani and Rios expressed disapproval of antiphishing products that use black lists to block known phishing sites. One, because some legitimate server admins might have their compromised account password visible on such lists. Two, because the researchers were able to open those lists and see the servers that were being compromised.

They followed one of the servers that had shown up on one black list multiple times. What they found was a poorly configured Internet-facing server, one that was easily compromised, and therefore hosting several phishing sites.

Once they found a compromised Web server, they then wondered: how hard is it to create an authentic-looking phishing site? Dhanjani and Rios found kits online, prepackaged with images and forms from Bank of America, Citibank, and PayPal, among others. Just install one of these kits on a compromised server and you're in business.

Looking deeper into the code used in these kits, they found that one kit had been copied many times, with different images. Moreover, the creator of the kit was skimming off the people using the kit; every time someone fell for a phishing site, their personal data not only went to the phisher who put up the site, but also to the author who wrote the kit.

With personal information flowing in, what does the average phisher do next? Dhanjani and Rios googled to find sites trading personal data--not a surprising find. What they found was that U.S. and U.K. IDs often sold for much less than European and Asian data. They could not account for the difference.

They also found forums and sites dedicated to ATM "skimming." Skimming is the physical use of secondary readers and keypads on ATMs used to capture account numbers and PINs. Often the ATM transaction goes through, and the customer doesn't realize the account has been compromised until later.

Dhanjani and Rios suggested that site administrators should lock down their sites so that phishing kits don't take root. They also suggested that sites require more security in order to raise the bar. By requiring a customer to use two-factor authentication, or a persistent cookie, many of the financial phishing sites would cease to be effective, they said.