Explosion of look-alike domains aims to steal sensitive data from online shoppers

Venafi released research on the explosion of look-alike domains, which are routinely used to steal sensitive data from online shoppers. Venafi’s research analyzed suspicious domains targeting the top 20 retailers in five key markets: the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Australia.

look-alike domains

As the rate of online shopping increases, customers are being targeted through look-alike domains. Cyber attackers create these fake domains by substituting a few characters in the URLs. Because they point to malicious online shopping sites that mimic legitimate, well-known retail websites, it makes it increasingly difficult for customers to detect the fake domains. Additionally, given that many of these malicious pages use a trusted TLS certificate, they appear to be safe for online shoppers who unknowingly provide sensitive account information and payment data.

“Domain spoofing has always been a cornerstone technique of web attacks that focus on social engineering, and the movement to encrypt all web traffic does not shield legitimate retailers against this very common technique,” said Jing Xie, senior threat intelligence analyst for Venafi. “Because malicious domains now must have a legitimate TLS certificate in order to function, many companies feel that certificate issuers should own the responsibility of vetting the security of these certificates. In spite of significant advances in the best practices followed by certificate issuers, this is a really bad idea.”

“No organization should rely exclusively on certificate authorities to detect suspicious certificate requests,” continued Xie. “For example, cyber attackers recently set up a look-alike domain for NewEgg, a website with over 50 million visitors a month. The look-alike domain used a trusted TLS certificate issued by the CA who followed all the best practices and baseline requirements. This phishing website was used to steal account and credit card data for over a month before it was shut down by security researchers.”

According to Venafi’s research, there has been an explosion in the number of potentially fraudulent domains. There are more than double the number of look-alike domains compared to legitimate domains, and every online retailer studied is being targeted.

Key findings from the research include:

  • The total number of certificates for look-alike domains is more than 200 percent greater than the number of authentic retail domains.
  • Among the top 20 online German retailers, there are almost four times more look-alike domains than valid domains.
  • Major retailers present larger targets for cyber criminals. One of the top 20 U.S. retailers has over 12,000 look-alike domains targeting their customers.
  • The growth in look-alike domains appears to be connected to the availability of free TLS certificates; 84 percent of the look-alike domains studied use free certificates from Let’s Encrypt.

look-alike domains

As the holiday shopping season approaches, there will likely be an increase in look-alike domains. For online retailers that discover malicious domains, they can take several steps to protect their customers:

Search and report suspicious domains using Google Safe Browsing. Google Safe Browsing is an industry anti-phishing service that identifies and blacklists dangerous websites. Retailers can report a domain here.

Report suspicious domains to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG). The APWG is an international voluntary organization that focuses on limiting cyber crime perpetrated through phishing. Retailers can report a suspicious domain at https://www.antiphishing.org/report-phishing/ or via email to reportphishing@apwg.org.

Add Certificate Authority Authorization (CAA) to the DNS records of domains and subdomains. CAA lets organizations determine which CAs can issue certificates for domains they own. It is an extension of the domain’s DNS record and supports property tags that let domain owners set CA policy for entire domains or for specific hostnames.

Leverage software packages to search for suspicious domains. Copyright infringement software may help retailers find malicious websites, stopping the unauthorized use of their logos or brands. Solutions that also provide anti-phishing functionality can help aid in the search for look-alike domains.

“Ultimately, we should expect even more malicious look-alike websites designed for social engineering to pop up in the future,” concluded Xie. “In order to protect themselves, enterprises need effective means to discover domains that have a high probability of being malicious through monitoring and analyzing certificate transparency logs. This way they can leverage many recent industry advances to spot high-risk certificate registrations, crippling malicious sites before they cause damage by taking away their certificates.”

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