Surfing in a sea of online sharks

Published August 19
Updated August 19

Itís easier than ever to get waylaid on the internet, diverted to dangerous territory where scam artists await with traps baited for the unsuspecting user.

Itís all about devious misdirection, fumble-fingered typing and how our brains can confuse what our eyes see. Big money can await the clever scammer, and costs are rising for corporations and politicians who do not take heed.

The problems lie in the inner workings of the internet, and touches on issues like the vast expansion of the combination of words, dots and symbols that comprise internet addresses.

Itís no longer just .com, .net., .org and a handful of others. Now, there are 1,900 new extensions, known as top-level domains, things like .beer, .camera, .city, .dating, .party and .shop.

"We see a ton of them being used maliciously," said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Finnish security company F-Secure, who called the new endings "a big headache."

The problems revolve around what computer scientists refer to as "spoofing" of the Domain Name System, or DNS, which has been called the phone book of the internet. Itís been going on for a while, and touches on what users type into the address bar of a browser window or click on at a website. There are new ways to make phony addresses look real.

"Creating a spoofed domain name, or even hijacking a domain name, has become a lot easier today," said Israel Barak, chief information security officer at Cybereason, a cyber security firm based in Boston.

Just a few years ago, spoofing an internet address, say, microsoft.com, was primitive.

"You would have to maybe change that Ďií to a 1. Iím going to be M1crosoft with a 1 today, or even change the Ďoí to a zero, or change the Ďtí to a seven. For senior citizens with fuzzy vision like Iím starting to get, you might squint at that and say, ĎLooks like Microsoft to me,í?" said Paul Vixie, chief executive of Farsight Security, a San Mateo, Calif., company.

An internet pioneer, Vixie has been involved in its governance for three decades. He is an architect of some of the protocols used in the DNS system and advises the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Los Angeles non-profit that serves as the guardrails for the borderless global internet.

But Vixie said the internet is still in its Wild West phase. He compared the online world today to the era of highways before seatbelts and airbags.

"It just takes us some time to catch up. First, you innovate, you kill a lot of people or steal a lot of money, whatever it is, and then somebody comes along and says we got to secure this somehow. Weíre still in that first phase here," Vixie said.

To bridge the gap between English-speaking and non-English-speaking worlds, internet organizers have incorporated domain names utilizing characters covering 139 modern and historic scripts. Itís not just major scripts like the Cyrillic alphabet and Chinese characters. Itís also Runic, Buhid, Rejang and dozens of other obscure language scripts.

Scamsters have had a field day with parts of those scripts. Theyíve inserted look-alike characters into internet addresses, sending users to bogus malicious websites. Vixie said numerous distinct characters look like the Roman letter "i."

"They are completely visually the same down to the last pixel on your screen to the real lower-case Ďi.í So there is no way that youíre going to tell the difference," he said.

Inserting such exotic characters into a link is one technique criminals employ to send users to look-alike sites that may appear to be a bank website, a Gmail troubleshooting page or some other page that asks for a username and password. Other techniques are also used.

In some cases, adversaries target employees of a corporation, nuclear plant, military unit or other high-value facility where they seek a digital foothold. The hackers send the targets tailored emails with the malicious links.

"Itís easy(and) itís cheap," said Tom Richards, co-founder and chief strategy officer for GroupSense, a Virginia cyber threat intelligence firm.

As a hacker, Richards said, "All I need to do is register a website that looks like my target and then send that to a handful of employees or people affiliated with the organization or potentially even customers. And then I can trap them. I can send them malware. I can get them to fill out a form.

"Itís embarrassingly effective."

Not so long ago, companies would buy common domain names that were almost like their normal websites, but off by a letter to ensure clumsy typists wouldnít go astray. So, in the case of Walgreens.com, if you type in walgreen.com or walgrens.com it will still take you to the drugstore chainís site.

With all the new domain names, the task has grown more difficult. "It is getting harder and harder for companies. There are just so many combinations," said Steve Manzuik, director of security research at Duo Security, an Ann Arbor, Mich., vendor of cloud-based security services.

Some cybersecurity experts suggest that average internet users need to get savvier about phony websites, reading the components of what is in the address bar, like domain names and suffix paths. Others say that expects too much of average internet users.

Most users see "dots and slashes and question marks. They donít know what this means," said Rich Smith, director of Duo Labs, the advanced security research team at Duo.

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