Notorious Rock Phish gang pummels PC users with new attack strategy

A notorious online gang known for its prolific phishing operations has expanded its means of attack, potentially putting more PC users at risk of losing personal data.

The Rock Phish gang surfaced around 2004, becoming well-known for its expertise in setting up phishing sites, which seek to trick people into divulging sensitive data, as well as for selling phishing kitsdesigned for less technical cybercriminals.

Now, the phishing sites linked with the Rock Phish gang are being rigged with a drive-by download, a type of attack that can infect a PC with malicious software without any interaction by the user, researchers from vendor RSA said Monday.

The one-two punch means that even people who go to the phishing site but aren’t fooled into inputting their personal details could still be infected, wrote Uriel Maimon, a senior researcher, on RSA’s blog.

The phishing Web site tries to exploit any software vulnerabilities, and if it finds one, will then load the Zeus Trojan onto the PC. Zeus is particularly dangerous: it can collect data on forms, take screen shots, pilfer passwords from browsers and remotely control the computer, Maimon wrote.

Zeus also comes in at least 150 flavours. One of the phishing kits being sold now for $700 masks how Zeus appears to security programs. That kit uses a binary generator, which creates a new binary file for Zeus for every kit.

Antivirus programs use signatures, or data files, that describe what malicious programs “look” like in order to be detected. But creating new binaries can render security programs blind. Most of the popular antivirus programs can’t detect the variants.

“These files are radically different from each other, making them notoriously difficult for antivirus or security software to detect,” Maimon wrote.

Until today Rock Phish remains elusive – with many theories being spun about 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, who are behind as much as one-half of the phishing attacks being carried out these days.

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

“They are sort of the Keyser Söze of phishing,” said Zulfikar Ramzan, senior principal researcher at 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 added.

This criminal organization 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.

As of 2006, it was estimated that the criminal organization’s phishing schemes cost banks more than $100 million to date.

Rock Phish is not known for targeting 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-mails 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 CitiBank, E*Trade, Barclays, and Deutsche Bank, among others.

Security experts estimated 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,” said Dan Hubbard, senior director, security and technology research with Websense Inc.

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

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 said.

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 said.

Rock Phish has contributed to a surge in the number of phishing Web sites over the past few months, according 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 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 establish 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,” said 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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