Email Giants Move to Slash ‘Phishing’

Posted on: January 31st, 2012 by Jim Collier No Comments

Email-service providers Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AOL Inc. are backing a new effort intended to dramatically reduce “phishing” emails, which attempt to trick recipients into thinking they come from a legitimate source.

Some of the underlying technologies are already used widely in protecting email, relying on the equivalent of digital signatures that help identify a message’s sender.

The companies—along with others such as financial-service companies Bank of America Corp., FMR LLC’s Fidelity Investments and eBay Inc.’s PayPal—are hoping to create an environment that allows the recipient of an email from, say, a bank, to feel secure that it isn’t a trick.

To achieve that, the firms have created DMARC.org, a working group of 15 companies that plans to promote a standard set of technologies that they say will lead to more secure email.

Some of the underlying technologies are already used widely in protecting email, relying on the equivalent of digital signatures that help identify a message’s sender. But senders don’t always authenticate every message they send, so recipients are forced to rely on complex and imperfect ways to distinguish trusted messages from potentially fraudulent ones, backers of the effort say.

Brett McDowell, chair of DMARC and a senior manager at PayPal, says senders also need policies that tell email providers how to treat messages that aren’t authenticated. That way, the email provider will be able to vouch for the authenticity of the real emails—and block fake ones or label them suspicious.

PayPal has been using the authentication technologies with Yahoo’s email service since 2007 and with Google’s since 2008, Mr. McDowell says, and is now blocking around 200,000 fake emails per day. Adam Dawes, a product manager at Google, says that 15% of the messages the company delivers to inboxes—a count that doesn’t include spam and other junk emails—is currently protected with the authentication safeguards.

Such volumes could be the reason that this effort to secure email can succeed where past ones have failed, representing a “critical mass” of key companies, says Mr. McDowell.

If the system were to work and email could be authenticated, it would allow businesses to communicate with customers in new ways—or rather in old ways that have been compromised by phishing attacks. A bank customer would be able to trust an email advising him to follow a link and update his account information, for example. Currently, many companies tell customers not to trust emails with this kind of message, and many consumers assume that such messages are phishing attacks.

“If you are a big bank or a retailer, you have a very strong interest in making sure people trust your messages,” says Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, which tracks the messaging industry. While past efforts to secure email have fallen short, DMARC “has a lot of promise,” he says.

Even if every email can be authenticated, it won’t bring an end to email fraud, Mr. McDowell acknowledges. But it will mean that scammers need to find new addresses with which to launch their attacks. Instead of crafting an email that looks like it comes from paypal.com, for instance, it would need to come from “paypalpayments.com” or some other fake site.

The DMARC working group officially launches Monday. Besides email providers and financial-service firms, initial participants include social-networking companies such as Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. and messaging-security providers such as Agari Data Inc.

Mr. McDowell said it won’t cost a lot for companies to start using the standards, but it will require them to identify every server that sends email and ensure that the technologies are in use. The same holds true for third-party firms such as marketing agencies that send email on behalf of a company.

When it comes to receiving emails, it’s likely that email vendors or security firms will add the capability to authenticate messages into future versions of their systems, Mr. McDowell says. He hopes that makers of security and email software also adopt the DMARC standards.

Write to Ben Worthen at ben.worthen@wsj.com.

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

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