The number of domains registered to carry out phishing attacks broke all records in the second half of 2013 and yet a huge proportion of this type of fraud can now be explained by a single country, China.

If this sounds like an unsurprising statistic - China has been at or near the top of every cybercrime statistic for years - according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) there does appear to be something a bit different this time around; these attacks are now being aimed mainly at Chinese consumers not their better-secured US and European counterparts.

The number of domains used for phishing attacks reached a total of 82,163 during the period, a tiny but troublesome fringe among the estimated 271 million legitimate domain names on the Internet.

Of these, 59,332 were compromised web hosts, with the remaining 22,831 registrations by phishing criminals, a steep rise on the 12,175 detected in the first half of the year and the 5,835 that appeared in the last six months of 2012.

This is the largest number of domains registered in any six-monthly survey since the APWG started noticing these numbers in 2007. What caused the sudden spike and should we be worried?

The curious thing is that while the attacks launched from these domains was also high at 115,565 – a 60 percent rise on the first half  of 2013 – they were still slightly below the level of attacks seen in 2012. The number of institutions (mainly financial and ecommerce) was also down a bit although phishing gangs did appear to be ‘churning’ many of them in an attempt to cycle through attacks more quickly.

The actual lifespan of the average phishing attack is also near historic lows at only 28 hours and 43 minutes, the APWG noted. Phishing is becoming a tougher business. Attacks must succeed more quickly, using a wider number of brands from ever more domains.

However, the big story of this report is the growth in phishing in China, most of which seems to be aimed at the home population. China has long been a cybercrime hotspot but the scale of what has been occurring during 2013 should worry the authorities there.

The core of the Chinese problem seems to be the ease (read: cheapness) with which criminals can register domains without any checks, evidenced by the fact that nine of the top registrars registering this kind of domain were located in the country. 

A staggering 85 percent of the registered phishing domains during the second half of 2013 were in China alone and that at a time when phishing domain registration elsewhere has been falling (the AWPG’s visibility into China was helped by input from the Anti-phishing Alliance of China, APAC).

The Chinese phishing industry is enjoying such a boom that they are even confident enough to occasionally step offshore to register domains used to attack Chinese Internet users.

One can look at these figures in two ways. Phishing is rising thanks to Chinese registrations, which is bad, or China has a major phishing problem that could be stamped on with better domain policing and some checks. The pool of registrars being used to set up these domains is small and it wouldn’t take much to put a major dent in the problem.

This isn’t to suggest that phishing is on the way out but that it might be changing. In countries such as the US, a much bigger problem these days are small-scale targeted attacks, which are not measured by the APWG because they are aimed at individual enterprises and can’t be detected through domain registrations.