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Phishing is a variety of Internet-based scam where an unsuspecting victim is sent an official-looking e-mail professing to be from a popular Web site.
The e-mail usually contains a warning about the nature of a person's account with said site, and a "confirmation link," which leads the victim to a fake Web site (designed to look like the real thing), where they may be coerced into surrendering sensitive information, such as credit card numbers or bank accounts.
Because phishing relies on the gullibility of end users, rather than any technical weaknesses on their computers, it's classified as a social-engineering attack -- it's done by lying to and misdirecting people, not exploiting bugs.
One way phishing scammers hide their tracks is by obscuring the true domain name in a URL. This can be done by, among other things, using a string of subdomains. For instance, most people who see http://www.paypal.com.site21.com will not really notice the site21.com at the end; they'll just see the paypal.com part of the URL.
eBay and PayPal are the two of the most commonly spoofed authorities, and since their domain names are broadly recognized, the unsuspecting are easily fooled by tricks like this.
Security firm CoreStreet has created a free software tool called SpoofStick, a browser plug-in for both Internet Explorer and Firefox that helps defeat social-engineering attacks like phishing.
When installed, it adds a toolbar to your browser that tells you exactly what domain you're in. If you believe you're being sent to eBay when you click a link, SpoofStick will determine if you are in fact there or not -- without you having to decipher the URL manually.
SpoofStick can also see through International Domain Name exploits, where a domain name could be spoofed by using some international characters that look like ASCII characters.
One caveat: CoreStreet provides SpoofStick for as-is use only. It's free, but unsupported.
About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows 2000 Power Users Newsletter.
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This was first published in December 2005