Over the past month, Internet banking customers of NatWest, Lloyds TSB, Barclays, Citibank and Halifax have received emails that appear to be from their bank. The emails contain a link that redirects the user to a replica of the bank's official Web site, which has been set up in order to extract the customers' usernames and passwords.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which works with the UK's law enforcement agencies to fight organised crime, is concerned about this growing phenomenon because the general population is often not computer-literate enough to tell the difference between a spoof email or Web site and a genuine one. According to the NCIS, this lack of education makes it relatively simple for organised criminals to target online banking customers in an attempt to gain access to their accounts.
A spokesman for the NCIS, who requested anonymity so his name would not be used in future email scams, said companies should work towards reducing the risk of their corporate identity being abused.
Basic precautions could start with a company ensuring it owns all the different permutations of its name. For example, if a customer received an email from or was redirected to a Web site using the "barclays-banking.com" domain, they might believe it to be genuine, but Barclays does not own that address; at the time of writing, it is available for anyone to buy. Similarly, although Lloyds TSB owns "lloydstsb.co.uk", it does not own "lloydstsb-bank.co.uk", which could easily be used in a future 'phishing' trip.
The NCIS spokesman told ZDNet UK that people need to get to know the email systems as well as they know the traditional postal system. "People know that stamps are perforated, business envelopes look a certain way and if they get a handwritten envelope from a business, they think 'that's a bit strange'. But with email, although those indicators are present, people have not yet learned to look for them," he said.
Nigel Miller, commerce and technology partner at law firm Fox Williams, said banks are in a tricky position because on one hand they encourage customers to migrate to online banking services and try to convince them they are safe, but with the other hand they have to warn them of the risks. "What is the responsibility of the bank to educate their customers? It doesn't sound very good when you are trying to sell them a service, but have to tell them how risky it is," he said.
One as yet unanswered question is where the lists of customer email addresses used by the attackers came from. According to Miller, if evidence could be found that the lists were leaked from the banks themselves, they could face serious criminal charges for breach of the Data Protection Act: "If there has been a leak, it could give rise to compensation claims or criminal liability under the Data Protection Act," he said.
ZDNET U.K.'s Munir Kotadia reported from London.