October 15, 2015 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

How do Web users know they’re not getting scammed? While there are no absolutes online, it’s common practice to look for the green padlock symbol next to a site’s URL: If it’s there, the site uses SSL/TLS certificates to safeguard user data. According to Naked Security, however, fraudsters have now obtained legitimate digital certificates from major certificate authorities (CAs), which they’re using to dupe visitors into giving up personal information. Has the green padlock become just another tool for scammers?

Reeling in Victims With Digital Certificates

Here’s the best-case scenario for phishers: Create a website that seems legitimate, usually by slightly misspelling the name of a popular bank or service and then pasting familiar logos and login buttons across the page to convince users the site is above-board. Security has improved, with in-browser defenses and more tech-savvy users leading to a much tougher market for phishers — they cast just as much but reel in far, far less.

Part of the user vetting process, however, is checking for SSL/TLS certificates. If a site displays the green padlock, it must be doing something right. Right?

According to CSO Online, not always. Enterprising scam artists have taken their fraudulent websites to CAs in hopes of passing muster and being granted certificates. Critical oversight should stop these fraudsters from getting the green light. But U.K. network monitoring company Netcraft said that in just one month, major CAs have issued hundreds of SSL certificates to deceptive domain names. What gives?

Placing Blame

Netcraft points the finger at major CAs like Symantec, GoDaddy, Comodo and CloudFlare for doing a poor job of vetting potential applicants. Some should be easy marks — domains like banskfamerica.com and emergencypaypal.net are clearly meant to reel in potential victims.

Others aren’t so obvious, but CAs are supposed to apply the same level of diligence no matter the applicant or the type of certificate. The easiest to obtain are domain-validated (DV) certificates, which cost around $10 and only require CAs to check that applicants own the domain they intend to use.

The problem? A combination of automated issuing processes and lax controls — such as simply sending an email to the domain administrator on file — make it easy for scammers to sneak through the gaps. Trell Rohovit of startup CA Hydrant ID told CSO Online that this means “a bad guy only has to beat one process/person/or email and — puff — your brand just flew out the proverbial Internet window.”

In theory, DVs with suspicious names are supposed to undergo more thorough vetting, and rogue CAs should be revoked once reported. But supposed to and should are cold comfort for users scammed by sites carrying the padlock logo since encryption doesn’t equal safety when it’s not possible to confirm who’s running the show at the other end.

Cert Uncertainty

With digital certificates now big business — and initiatives like Let’s Encrypt now rolling out free certificates in an effort to encrypt the Web — the rise of SSL/TLS scammers poses a real problem for Web security at large. As it stands, CAs are the weak link in the chain; the green padlock only has meaning when not just anyone has access to the key.

There are two ways for this to go: a revamp of existing cert procedures to safeguard users and boost the reputation of SSL/TLS certificates, or an evolution of Web security that puts the onus on browsers and users to ensure their safety rather than relying on certificate middlemen.

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