Who or What Is 'Rock Phish' and Why Should You Care?

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first thing you need to know about Rock Phish is that nobody knows exactly who, or what, they are.

Wikipedia defines the Rock Phish Kit as "a popular tool designed to help nontechnical people create and carry out phishing attacks," but according to security experts, that definition is not correct.

They say that Rock Phish is actually a person, or perhaps a group of people, responsible for as much as one-half of the phishing attacks being carried out these days.

Why should you care? Phishers try to trick Internet users into divulging sensitive information on phony Web pages made up to look like a bank site or an online shopping site. It's a type of attack that is becoming very lucrative. Research firm Gartner estimates that phishers will cost U.S. businesses and consumers a whopping $2.8 billion this year. The average take: $1244 per victim.

No one can say for sure where Rock Phish is based, or whether the group operates out of a single country.

"They are sort of the Keyser Söze of phishing," says Zulfikar Ramzan, senior principal researcher with Symantec's Security Response group, referring to the secretive criminal kingpin in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.

"They're doing some pretty scary things out there," he adds.

Rock Phish History

This criminal organization first appeared in late 2004 and was given the name "Rock Phish" because the URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) on the group's fake sites included a distinctive subdirectory named "rock," a technique the group abandoned once phishing filters began looking for the word.

Since then it has grown to be one of the most prominent phishing groups in operation. It has developed a variety of new attack techniques that have earned the group a kind of grudging respect among security professionals, several of whom declined to be interviewed on the record for this story for fear of being physically harmed. They estimate that the criminal organization's phishing schemes have cost banks more than $100 million to date.

How Rock Phish Works

Rock Phish is not known for focusing on the two most popular phishing targets, eBay and PayPal. Instead it specializes in European and U.S. financial institutions. At last count the group had spoofed 44 brands from businesses in nine countries, sending out e-mail messages that try to trick victims into visiting phony Web sites and entering information such as credit card numbers and passwords. Rock Phish sites have spoofed Barclays, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, and E-Trade, among others.

Security experts estimate that Rock Phish is responsible for between one-third and one-half of all phishing messages being sent out on any given day. "They are probably the most active group of phishers in the world," says Dan Hubbard, senior director of security and technology research with Websense.

What causes particular concern among security experts such as Hubbard is Rock Phish's ability to stay one step ahead of both security products and law enforcement.

For example, according to security experts Rock Phish pioneered image spam, the technique of sending e-mail messages in graphic files in order to bypass spam filters.

And just as browser makers have been building phishing filters into their products, the group has begun creating unique URLs for its phishing messages to get around blacklists of known phishing addresses.

These single-use URLs make it extremely difficult for antiphishing researchers to identify and block phishing pages, Symantec's Ramzan says.

This is bad news for products such as the Firefox browser, which uses a blacklist. "Ultimately, technologies that rely heavily on blacklists are going to be useless," Ramzan says.

Rock Phish has contributed to a surge in the number of phishing Web sites over the past few months, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group. In August the group counted 19,000 phishing URLs. By October, the most recent month for which data is available, that number had nearly doubled to 35,000.

Security experts guess that Rock Phish is run by an extremely small group of technically savvy criminals--probably about a dozen hackers--who set up the phishing Web sites, manage the domain name registration, and ensure that the stolen financial information is funneled into a central server, which researchers call the "Mother Ship."

This group then sells the credit card and banking information in Internet-based chat rooms to a much wider range of money launderers who actually extract money from these accounts, according to researchers who asked not to be identified.

Rock-Star Phishers

Rock Phish uses a network of hacked computers to redirect Web visitors to the Mother Ship, and the group has been particularly adept at exploiting the decentralized nature of the Internet for its illegal activity. One successful trick has been to register new phishing addresses in little-used country domains--São Tomé and Principe (.st) and Moldovia (.md) have been recent targets--where law enforcement and phishing take-down groups may not have established contacts, according to researchers.

During the time it takes to establish contacts with the domain name registrars and have them take down the fraudulent Web domains, Rock Phish can continue to collect information.

"They're the innovators in the phishing space," says Symantec's Ramzan. "Whenever there's a new technique that comes out, it can be traced back to the Rock Phish group."

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