THE MAGAZINE

Worth a Look

By Peter Piazza

The art of phishing has become not only widespread but increasingly sophisticated as well. These scams can bring unwary surfers to identical versions of their online banks that at a casual glance are impossible to tell from the real thing.

But a new tool will make that casual glance effective at distinguishing a fake bank from the real one. The Netcraft Toolbar is available as a free download from U.K.-based Internet-services company Netcraft, which is widely known for free reports on what operating system a Web site is using and its rankings of Web sites by their uptime or how often they are visited.

The toolbar installs quickly after a short download and runs under the address bar of the Internet Explorer browser (a short and understandable user's guide is online).

When a surfer visits a site, the toolbar refers to a regularly updated list of Web addresses that have been reported as being part of a phishing scam (more than 3,000 phishing sites are already there, and Netcraft's Mike Prettejohn reports that on some days as many as 22 new sites are reported).

The toolbar also defends against hidden pop-ups that are designed to usurp navigational control, and it looks for suspicious characters that can appear in a URL that are frequently used to deceive a surfer. In addition, it displays a flag of the site's hosting location. So, if you live in the U.S. and suddenly find your bank's Web site is being hosted in an Eastern European country, you can be pretty sure it's a fake.

If you try to reach a site that has been reported as a scam, an "alert box" appears, explaining that the site has been blocked. Users are given the option to override the alert and access the site. The tool also provides users with a way for the user to report an incorrectly blocked URL.

A Site Report button provides in-depth information into the Web site, including its IP address, who the site is registered to, how long it's been around, and other information that can provide clues to a fake site. For example, one clue is a site claiming to belong to a major bank, whose administrator can be reached at a Yahoo e-mail address.

Pros.
The toolbar is very easy to install and use; in fact, it does most of the work. It gives users a way to protect themselves from scams, rather than asking network administrators to do all the work. And it's free.

Cons.
So far, the toolbar only works with Internet Explorer, so the growing number of users switching to Mozilla Firefox won't be able to use it.

@ Find out how to get the Netcraft Toolbar at SM Online.

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