NEW YORK - Mark Nichols runs an online gift shop and considers himself Internet savvy. Yet like so many other Web surfers, he got duped by an e-mail scam anyway.
A message saying it was from eBay asked Nichols to submit his password and other personal information to a Web site. The e-mail had arrived shortly after Nichols’ credit card had expired, so he didn’t suspect the site was phony.
"I was thinking, ‘You’re right, I do need to go update my account,’ and sure enough, I fell for it," said the Crosby, N.D., man.
As these so-called "phishing" scams proliferate, companies are sharpening technological tools to counter them. Education alone, many agree, isn’t enough.
Anti-phishing software is apt to soon be added to the arsenal of digital shields forged to stop spam, viruses and hacking. Security companies are also building tools for banks and merchants to use behind the scenes.
Phishing scams have been around for years but have in recent months become more numerous — and sophisticated.
Scammers now copy and paste Web coding from real sites like Citibank’s to give their fraudulent messages and the sites they lead to an aura of authenticity.
They register Internet addresses that look real, subbing the letter ‘‘l’’ with the numeral ‘‘1,’’ for instance. A few messages even carry ads for that aura of authenticity.
‘‘What used to be a game and a prank has now been recognized as something that can be lucrative and has attracted organized efforts,’’ said Bill Harris, chairman of PassMark Security LLC and former chief executive of PayPal, a frequent phishing target.
The Anti-Phishing Working Group, formed in October by industry and law enforcement, identified 282 new phishing scams in February, up from 176 a month earlier. About 70 percent have been traced to eastern Europe or Asia, said David Jevans, the group’s chairman.
A 19-year-old Houston man now faces up to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to opening accounts and making purchases using information captured through phishing. For the most part, however, the techniques that scammers use and their locations abroad, make them difficult to catch.‘
Jevans said no hard numbers are available on monetary losses from phishing, which represents only a sliver of overall fraud. The greater cost, he said, is in consumer confidence: Banks might suffer if customers shun online banking and
insist on using more expensive tellers.
In Nichols’ case, he realized his error early enough, so he quickly changed his eBay password. But the scams can be costly.
To fight back, eBay in February added an Account Guard feature to its toolbar for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. A green light appears when users are on a site run by eBay or its PayPal subsidiary. The light goes red for known fraudulent sites. A warning also appears any time users try to enter their eBay or PayPal passwords elsewhere.
Rob Chesnut, eBay’s deputy general counsel, said the company went with technology because education was a tough proposition. ‘‘It’s quite easy for spoofers to create a page that looks like an eBay or PayPal page, so you can’t teach users about the look of a page,’’ he said.
PostX Corp. takes a similar approach, displaying green when e-mail has been digitally signed and verified, red when it shows signs of fraud. Others carry yellow.
The company’s plug-in tools for browsers and e-mail programs, slated for release by June, will look for four basic phishing techniques, including a Web address that appears on-screen as one thing but has a different site embedded in the link.
In mid-April, EarthLink plans to release a toolbar of its own to block users from fake EarthLink sites. The list of bad sites will be automatically refreshed every few hours.
The numerous efforts can foster confusion. Which toolbar works for which scam? What color light do I trust?
Yahoo and Microsoft Corp. are developing broader systems for authenticating email, but that will take time.
Chesnut expects greater cooperation sooner.
‘‘Right now, this is the infancy,’’ he said. The goal will be to produce a single toolbar that does the job. ‘‘It doesn’t make any sense for somebody to have 20 toolbars on the system.’’
In recent months, e-mail management company MessageGate added technology to analyze e-mail headers for mismatches, such as a message that claims to be from Bank of America but got routed through a Russian mail server. Digital Envoy has a similar offering.
In February, MailFrontier added fraud protection to its spam-blocking software for the desktop. Gleb Budman, senior products director for the company, said phishing is trickier than spam to combat because messages look real.
Before the fraud folder existed, Budman said, many users retrieved phishing messages from their spam folders, thinking the software had made a mistake.
E-mail users flooded with phishing scams remain skeptical. ‘‘You create technology to prevent that, but hackers and the bad guys are just going to one up you,’’ said Don Bangert III, a freelance programmer in Granite Falls, Wash.
Jeffrey Guilfoyle, a vice president at security company Solutionary, said that while technology offers a quick fix, ‘‘from a longerterm perspective, education of the user base is really the only way to do that. Technology is always lagging.’’