Phishing attacks appear to be falling back to their pre-2012 levels after the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) recorded a sudden 20 percent fall in activity for the first quarter of 2013.

The APWG records phishing crime in a number of ways, primarily through the number of unique phishing websites detected by its members, which dropped around 20 percent between the Q4 2012 and Q1 2013. Significantly, these fell to just over 35,000 in February, the lowest total recorded since late 2011, the APWG said.

This also corresponded to a fall in the number of individual phishing email campaigns detected, from around 29,000 in January to 20,000 by March. For perspective, even the higher number is 29 percent lower than the record 41,000 monthly email reports that occurred in August 2009. The year 2012 was generally a period of record highs.

The drop can be explained by a “precipitous” fall in the number of virtual server-based phishing attacks in which a criminal hijacks a large number of sites being hosted on a single server, the organisation said.

Last October, the number of such virtual servers being exploited was 14,400, which had dropped to only 1,653 by February 2013.

The bad news is that the phishing drop caused by this was probably to do with a changing business model than any fall in underlying criminality.

“While fluctuations in these statistics can be common, the drastic decrease likely indicates that cybercriminals are utilizing the servers they compromise not for phishing attacks, but rather for more malware or distributed denial of service attacks,” said Internet Identity President and APWG Trends Report contributor, Rod Rasmussen.

So phishing attacks were most likely simply less profitable than other forms of cybercrime. This situation might or might not persist.

The number of legitimate brands (for example banks) used to push phishing has remained fairly constant at around the 400 mark. Not surprisingly, payment services and financials are still the most target sectors, accounting for 70 percent of those detected in the quarter.

The majority of phishing sites are hosted on hijacked US servers, a reflection of the country’s developed web infrastructure. We hear less about phishing's victims but there is plenty of evidence that they are now global.

While the APWG figures show a drop in the absolute number of phishing websites and emails that does not mean there still isn't a vast industry out there pushing bogus websites at hapless consumers.