Browsers Offer Protection Against Phishing

While mass mailing of electronic junk messages has fallen into disfavor among spammers, phishing continues to attract a loyal following. That’s because the technique has been successful at bypassing anti-spam measures deployed by many organizations.

Old-fashioned mass spam mailings are like direct mail campaigns: massive numbers of messages are sent to recipients with little regard to whom those recipients might be.

Phishing pays more attention to whom it’s aimed at. For example, it might be aimed at customers of the bank. Although many of the phishing messages will land in the inboxes of people who aren’t customers of the target bank, the junk mailer hopes to land in enough inboxes that do belong to bank customers to make whatever scam is being perpetrated profitable.

That’s because phishers trade on trust. A bank customer is likely to trust communication from their bank. A phisher can exploit that trust to get the recipient of a phishing email to do things — like open attachments — they wouldn’t do for an untrusted or unknown source.

Malicious escapades perpetrated by phishing include theft of personal information and the planting of pernicious software on computers.

Needless to say, the better prepared an organization is to foil phishers, the better off its workers and valuable data will be.

When defending against phishers, a browser can be an important weapon. That’s because many phishing messages contain links to infected websites designed to impose mischief on anyone who lands on them.

The proliferation of such sites continues to grow, according to independent tester NSS labs. In 2011, for example, under 40,000 phishing sites were being created a month. This year, that number has jumped to more than 50,000 per month.

The good news, however, is that the major web browsers have become quite good at identifying and blocking access to those sites. In a test over a 10-day period, NSS found found that Google’s browser Chrome 21 blocked 94 percent of the phishing URLs appearing on its address bar, followed by Internet Explorer 10 (92 percent), Safari 5 (91 percent) in Firefox 15 (90 percent).

NSS calculates the margin of error for its test to be two percent, so most of the browsers are pretty close to equal at handling nefarious URLs.

The testers noted that there are some other considerations besides blocking bad URLs when evaluating a browser’s effectiveness against phishing attacks. For instance, the quickness at which a browser can react to new black URLs is also very important, especially since the shelf life of malicious websites continues to decline.

In 2010, for example, the average uptime for sites link to phishing attacks was 73 hours. This year, the average has slipped to 23 hours.

The quickest browser for blocking zero-day phishing URLs was Safari 5, with a rate of 79.2 percent. Chrome had the lowest rate, at 53.2 percent.

As for the fastest average time for discovering and blocking unsavory URLs, Firefox 15 led the pack (2.35 hours), while the other browsers ranged from 5.38 to 6.11 hours.

NSS also tested the browsers for their effectiveness at blocking malicious downloads. Microsoft Internet Explorer led all its competitors, blocking more than 99.1 percent of all dastardly downloads. Chrome finished a distant second at 70.4 percent. Safari and Firefox were malware sieves with a rate of less than six percent.

Written by John P Mello Jr

John Mello is a freelance writer who has written about business and technical subjects for more than 25 years. He is frequent contributor to the ECT News Network and his work has appeared in a number of periodicals, including Byte magazine, PC World, Computerworld, CIO magazine and the Boston Globe


  1. Rob Ken · December 7, 2012

    This sounds good – it was high time to do something in this direction. However, my concerns are that it could be easily abused. With Firefox I frequently get a message about a reported attack site for sites I am almost 100% sure are clean simply because they are reputable sites. If the phishing filter doesn’t allow competitors to report a site and it be included right away as a phishing site, then it is good to have this feature.

  2. Catherine Milton · December 18, 2012

    Wow, that’s interesting. I’m a devout Chrome user, and so far, I’ve never encountered any bad website that should have been blocked in the first place or perhaps I wasn’t just paying too much attention. Too bad, I’m not using Mac. I couldn’t take advantage of Safari. It’s good to know that these browsers are also keeping themselves up-to-date with the various phishing methods and reducing them as much as possible. But how long does it take before these phishers are able to find a way to circumvent the system that is in place? I know it wouldn’t be that late.

  3. Trace Simon · December 20, 2012

    I’ve come across wrongly blocked sites as well, Rob. In fact, I searched for certain information and found one of my friends’ blog post in the search results. However, it surprised me to see that the browser called it a threat! I know my friend wouldn’t do anything foolish, because he loved his site. I already told him about it, and he said he’s going to look into it. It’s just too bad, though, because labels such as this can be detrimental to his credibility he has been working so hard for the past few years.

  4. Nympha Robles · December 31, 2012

    A lot of browsers are actually doing a fine job in controlling online threats, which is really good, because browsers are some of the first lines of defense for us. However, I have one question: does this work too for our mobile devices? Phones and other types of mobile devices certainly need some kind of protection as well. Also, the article is correct in saying that malicious websites die out quickly. Well, that only shows how clever spammers really are and are very prepared for any kind of prevention schemes.

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