Criminals are sending markedly fewer phishing emails than a year ago but they are now being more skilfully targeted, an end-of-year report by security firm Websense has found.

According to Websense, phishing volumes have continued their journey downwards of recent years, falling to 0.5 percent of all email in 2013 from 1.12 percent the year before.

Although good news on the face of it, when it comes to any measurement of security there is always a rub and in this case it is the rise of plausible subject lines capable of tricking users into opening attachments or links.

The three top ones experienced by Websense (which sells email filtering gateways) were ‘Invitation to connect on LinkedIn’, ‘Mail delivery failed: returning message to sender’, ‘Dear customer <insert bank name here>’, ‘Comunicazione importante’, and ‘Undelivered Mail Returned to Sender’.

As the criminals know, these subject lines are difficult to filter using subject lines alone because that would risk trapping legitimate messages. If sent from legitimate domains (for example Gmail) they are also harder to block using reputation technology.

And years on from its appearance, the uncomfortable fact is that phishing still works as long as it is sufficiently targeted or appears to come from a legitimate individual as numerous stories about Advanced Persistent Threat (APTs) launched using the medium underline.

“Cybercriminals aren’t simply throwing millions of emails over the fence. They are instead targeting their attack strategies with sophisticated techniques and integrating social engineering tactics. Scammers use social networks to conduct their recon and research their prey,” said Websense.

The firm also published some data on the countries most often used to host phishing URLs although it’s not clear that this is particularly significant. For the record, China was top, followed by the US, Germany, the UK, Canada, Russia, France, Hong Kong, The Netherlands and Brazil.

This most likely reflects the availability of compromised hosts rather than reflecting badly on those countries in particular.

Not all phishing requires email to carry its message; a recent study noted the still-popular tendency to register typo domains (domains that are close mis-spellings of famous brands), using them to host phishing sites. These are usually found inadvertently from the address bar.

What doesn’t seem to be in doubt is that criminals are sending out fewer phishing emails. An analysis by the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) recorded a significant drop in the number of campaigns detected during 2013. This was probably because criminals were using their servers for other activities such as DDoS attacks.

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