Gartner: Phishing attacks up against US consumers

A new study by research firm Gartner Inc. found that the number of online scams known as "phishing attacks" have spiked in the last year and that online consumers are frequently tricked into divulging sensitive information to criminals.

The study, which ended in April 2003, surveyed 5,000 adult Internet users and found that around 3 percent of those surveyed reported giving up personal financial or personal information after being drawn into a phishing scam, which use e-mail messages and Web pages designed to look like correspondence from legitimate online businesses.

The results suggest that as many as 30 million adults have experienced a phishing attack and that 1.78 million adults could have fallen victim to the scams, Gartner said.

Phishing attacks typically begin with e-mail messages purporting to come from established companies such as eBay Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc., Citigroup Inc. and others. Web page links within the e-mail messages direct recipients to Web sites disguised as official company Web pages where the recipient is asked to enter personal information such as their social security number, account number, password or credit card information.

The U.S. federal authorities and leading Internet service providers (ISPs) such as America Online Inc. (AOL), EarthLink Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have taken a more aggressive stance on the scams.

In March the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to stop a phishing scam that had tricked hundreds of Internet users into giving credit card and bank account numbers to Web sites that looked like those of AOL and PayPal, part of eBay. The FTC charged Zachary Keith Hill of Houston with deceptive and unfair practices in that case, and the DOJ named Hill as a defendant in a criminal case it filed in Virginia.

Long a nuisance, phishing scams have exploded in the past year, Gartner said. The survey results suggest that 76 percent of all known or suspected phishing attacks occurred in the last six months, and 92 percent of known attacks happened in the 12 months preceding the study.

A success rate of 3 percent is plenty to encourage further attacks, Gartner said.

ISPs need to address the phishing problem to prevent the Internet and e-mail from being discredited as a medium for customer transactions, Gartner said.

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