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Hackers Go Phishing for Online Bankers

John Doyle (nda)
August 27, 2004

That e-mail from your bank may be more than a friendly enquiry. It could be the hook of a Phisher, the new breed of Internet fraudster intent on stealing money by tricking customers into divulging online account details.

Don't take the bait!Image: AP

Private banking has never been so easy in Germany, thanks, in part to the Internet. It is estimated that a third of all Germans bank online and the numbers are growing. But the lower costs and conveniences associated with online banking come at a price. And that price is quite high, especially when computer hackers are involved.

Having to deal with junk mail is just one of the many unfortunate Internet realities. Most of it is harmless. But some isn’t. Many Germans have had to experience this the hard way recently after opening, what they thought, were serious emails from their banks. They clicked on links they thought were associated with their banks and divulged sensitive financial data. Unfortunately, they were caught hook, line and sinker by a worrying new trend in Internet hacking known as Phishing.

Germany banks recently targeted

According to experts, these specialist internet fraudsters, now known as "phishers," are able to convince up to 5 percent of recipients to respond to such bogus emails. The focus so far in Germany has been on people with online auction site eBay, Deutsche Bank and Postbank accounts. A fresh wave of e-mails, purporting to come from Deutsche Bank, emerged last weekend and Tuesday night. Germany's biggest bank quickly moved to disable the fake Web sites.

While the banks claim that no customers lost any money, in certain instances elsewhere, the phishers have landed a big one. But the authorities are now aware of the scams and are doing their best to alert their customers.

Phony links to phony websites

Dieter Schürmann heads a department on Internet fraud at the state policing agency in Düsseldorf. “The people aren’t activating a link to their banks," he told DW-RADIO. "They’re activating links to phony Web sites that are run by criminals and look extremely authentic. They’re using the account information to rob people of their money.”

“People have lost money but not to the same extent as in the United States. As is often the case, these kinds of developments slowly make their way over the Atlantic and it’s not the banks that are taking the hit but the people themselves,” Schürmann said.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that Internet fraud was a $1 billion plus industry last year. And a lot of the damages hitting Germany stem from fraud originating in the US. In June this year, 1,422 separate phishing attacks were recorded, mostly focused on the United States. This figure showed a huge increase from the 176 cases reported in January, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a financial services industry task force based in the US.

But Schürmann thinks that there are ways to fight back: “It’s easier to fight crime in the digital world than in the analogue world," he said. "Fraudulent Web sites usually exist online for no longer than around 50 hours before they disappear for ever, but we nevertheless have a decent chance of tracking down where the Web sites originated.”

Simple advice

In the end, Schürmann says that the best way to fight Internet fraud is simply to ignore and erase any suspicious e mails: “As a rule of thumb, people shouldn’t click onto links they’re unsure of. We recommend that people do their telebanking by logging on to the Web sites of the banks directly.”

And if that doesn’t work, there’s also another way preventing web criminals from making unauthorized withdrawals. And that’s by banking in person. It may not be as sexy as operating a high-speed modem, but it may be a little safer in the end. And it could mean that you are the one that got away.

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