Beware of Phantom Websites

Monday, December 27, 2010

Robert Siciliano

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A “fly by night” business is one that quickly appears and disappears, without concern for the quality of their product or service, or for legal regulations.

These untrustworthy businesses often operate fraudulently. On the Internet, a fly by night business is called a “phantom website.”

Phantom websites exist to collect personal and credit card information. They can appear online any time of the year, but the holidays are prime time.

They imitate the look and feel of a legitimate website, and many simply copy the web code from well-known online retailers, right down to the names and logos.

They may also purchase domain names that resemble those of legitimate retailers, “typosquatting” to take advantage of mistyped searches.

Criminals may direct you to phantom websites using advertisements, even on major search engines like Yahoo and Google. These links or clickable graphics can either send you to a phantom site, or they may even directly infect your computer with malware.

Hackers and scammers also rely on black hat SEO to get their phantom websites ranked on the first or second page of search results, using the same search engine optimization techniques as legitimate vendors.

However, these scammers also game the system using techniques like “link farms,” “keyword stuffing,” and “article spinning,” which are frowned upon by search engines.

Using these techniques to lure visitors will get them banned within a month or two, but that’s plenty of time to establish an online presence and scam plenty of victims.

And of course, phishing is in season all year long. Scammers send emails offering deals too good to be true, in order to draw visitors to their phantom sites. They’ll often take advantage of major holidays and significant world events to create an enticing offer.

These emails are designed to trick recipients into entering account credentials, which allows the scammers to take over existing accounts or open new ones.

Protect yourself from phantom websites by only doing business with legitimate online retailers you know, like, and trust. Go directly to their websites, rather than relying on search engines, which may lead you astray.

But do use search engines to check out a company’s name and look for ratings sites where customers have posted their experiences with a particular company. If you can’t find anything aside from the company’s own website, be suspicious.

And, never click on links in unsolicited emails. Just hit delete.

Use SiteAdvisor or a similar service to scan for infected links.

And invest in identity theft protection, because when all else fails, it’s nice to have a service watching your back. McAfee Identity Protection includes proactive identity surveillance to monitor subscribers’ credit and personal information, as well as access to live fraud resolution agents who can help subscribers work through the process of resolving identity theft issues. For additional tips, please visit CounterIdentityTheft.com.

Robert Siciliano is a McAfee consultant and identity theft expert. See him discuss how a person becomes an identity theft victim on CounterIdentityTheft.com. (Disclosures)

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