How to Stay One Step Ahead of Phishing Websites — Literally

Phishing scams are more advanced and widespread than ever, and threat actors are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ability to craft malicious websites that look legitimate to unsuspecting users — including your employees, who have the kind of restricted access to enterprise data that cybercriminals covet most.

Traditionally, organizations have taken the blacklist approach: A security service provider rates domains based on reputation and a browser extension uses this data to block phishing websites. However, this approach can quickly devolve into a cat-and-mouse game, since the blacklist would only include domains that are actively hosting malicious content. In other words, this method isn’t effective until after victims are already infected.

Spot Phishing Scams Before They Cast Their Bait

IBM Research in Tokyo and IBM X-Force developed a more advanced approach to protecting users from malicious domains called ahead-of-threat detection. This unique method enables security teams to detect potentially malicious domains and actors before the actual threat becomes visible.

To demonstrate how to stay one step ahead of phishing websites with ahead-of-threat detection, let’s take a phishing site, for example. Figure 1 shows the typical life cycle of a malicious domain. In many cases, phishing domains are generated by replacing a single character in a popular domain with another similar-looking or easy-to-mistype character. Then there are domain generation alorithms, such as homograph domains and combosquatting and typosquatting domains.

Ahead-of-Threat Detection

Figure 1: Malicious domain life cycle

However they’re generated, bad actors register these domains to host phishing websites. Ahead-of-threat detection can identify potentially malicious domains at the time of registration or at the very early stages of domain activation.

How Does Ahead-of-Threat Detection Identify Phishing Websites?

Ahead-of-threat detection pulls in numerous pools of data. One of the most important is the ICANN WHOIS database, which includes information about domain registrars, such as names, phone numbers and addresses. Although WHOIS is anonymized by a guard service that protects registrants’ more detailed personal information, it is one of the primary sources of data by which to evaluate a domain’s maliciousness via ahead-of-threat detection.

Another key metric is image comparison. Phishing sites nowadays tend to look nearly identical to legitimate websites. Therefore, if a domain hosts a site that looks similar to that of a bank or other service, ahead-of-threat detection will raise a red flag.

What Does Ahead-of-Threat Detection Look Like in Practice?

We deployed our architecture in the real world in the form of Quad9, a free service IBM launched in collaboration with Packet Clearing House (PCH) and the Global Cyber Alliance (GCA) to deliver greater online privacy and security protection to consumers and businesses. Quad 9 provides a stream of newly observed response tuples, or Unique DNS Record (UDR), that contains only the response domain, query type and response record. This stream of around 1 million UDR records per day is condensed from the Quad9 systems operating in 76 countries and 128 locations.

Combining multiple results from these analytics can filter a limited number of potentially malicious domains from massive amount of incoming domains. In our experiment, we filtered more than 17 million domains to identify only about 10 malicious ones, including phishing sites masquerading as cryptocurrency exchanges, insurance sites, online banking portals and more. Most of these sites eluded the detection of traditional browser protection; in other words, they were detected ahead of the threat! It wasn’t until weeks later that many of these sites landed on traditional domain blacklists.

Ahead-of-threat detection can help security teams protect their users — and, by proxy, their enterprise data — proactively. It also has the potential to change the game for consumers, who traditionally use tools capable of identifying malicious sites only after they are accessed.

As the risk of phishing escalates and threat actors grow more and more cunning, ahead-of-threat protection can help security professionals discover how to stay one step ahead of phishing websites — literally.

Fumiko Satoh

Research Staff Member and Manager, IBM Research

Dr. Fumiko Satoh is a Research Staff Member and the Manager of Security and Services group at IBM Research - Tokyo in...