Like many working people, I love online retail. I live in Toronto, a major city with some great traditional brick-and-mortar shopping districts. Nonetheless, having access to online retailers from around the world in the comfort of my home is irresistible for me. Amazon has most of the online retailing market, but they don’t have a monopoly.
I have my own well developed, arguably eccentric taste. Many commercially released PS4 games are region-free. I love Japanese RPGs, and some of them don’t get localized for the North American market. There are online retailers like Play Asia and J-List that sell PS4 games that were made for the Japanese market. I can buy them from those sites and have them shipped to my front door, to play on my North American PS4.
Other people like different things, and there’s a world of online retail to address those desires. Some people live in smaller cities and towns, and online retail is a must if they want to buy something that isn’t sold at Walmart without having to drive a long way away. Online retail worldwide has been growing steadily for the past twenty years or so. According to eMarketer, retail ecommerce sales worldwide were about $2.86 trillion USD in 2018, and they’re projected to be $3.418 trillion USD for the 2019 calendar year. And although Amazon is a behemoth, there are loads of smaller and more specialized online retailers out there. Most of them have valuable brands to protect.
Cyber attackers love to spoof online retailers. There are kits for sale in Dark Web markets that make creating phishing websites easier than ever. Some cyber attackers can make phishing websites which imitate a legitimate online retailer’s web presence nearly by the pixel. It’s impressive but also horrifying. And when cyber attackers spoof your retail website, not only could you lose a sale but it also damages your valuable retail brand. If your customers get fooled by a phishing site, they may think “I can’t shop on that website anymore, it just steals my credit card number without shipping what I paid for.”
Domain spoofing is another tool in a cyber attacker’s arsenal. Once they’ve set up a web server and crafted a clever visual facsimile of your website, a domain that spoofs your site’s domain in the web browser address bar is the final and crucial ingredient to make their cyber attacks successful. And domain spoofing is still a huge problem.
Venafi’s research brief, The Risk Lookalike Domains Pose to Online Retailers, is a really eye-opening white paper. It identifies the various ways that cyber attackers craft malicious lookalike domains. Sometimes domains are extended, such as using bestretailer.com to spoof a legitimate retailer.com. Sometimes lookalike ASCII characters are used, such as retai1er.com to spoof retailer.com. A “1” looks a lot like an “l” in the fonts used in address bars. Sometimes homophones are used instead, like byshoeshere.com for buyshoeshere.com. And the most deceptive form of domain spoofing are punycode attacks which use lookalike Unicode characters to spoof ASCII characters. Unicode exists mainly to render different international character sets in digital mediums. So ḇủyshoeshere.com could be used to spoof buyshoeshere.com. If you look very carefully at ḇủyshoeshere.com, you’ll see that the characters that look like “b” and “u” aren’t actually ASCII characters! Very clever.
Online shoppers are now getting savvy enough to understand that they should avoid HTTP websites, or HTTPS websites with bad TLS certificates that their web browser will warn them about. Nonetheless, cyber attackers have ways to overcome that issue. Attackers make sure to find a Certificate Authority so they can deploy their own TLS certificates! Venafi analyzed lookalike domains of the top 20 retailers in France, Germany, Australia, the US, and the UK. According to Venafi’s research, 18,759 certificates were found for the retailers’ valid domains, but 40,651 certificates were found for lookalike domains which exist to spoof those same retailers.
Let’s Encrypt is a Certificate Authority which offers a valuable service for entities that don’t have the resources to pay for certificate services. But unfortunately, cyber attackers are exploiting Let’s Encrypt’s helpful services. 84% of the domain spoofing related TLS certificates Venafi found use Let’s Encrypt as their Certificate Authority. As written in Venafi’s white paper:
“Let’s Encrypt is attractive to cybercriminals seeking to profit from lookalike domains because free certificates contribute directly to economies of scale, and because Let’s Encrypt is a free service, it lowers the cost of waging multiple phishing attacks. Let’s Encrypt is also automated, so it reduces the friction that has previously been involved in obtaining certificates.”
So, if you’re an online retailer, what can you do to help prevent cyber attackers from spoofing the domains of your legitimate retail websites?
Every time you discover a domain spoofing incident, you should report it to Google Safe Browsing. Venafi’s research has found that reporting domain spoofing to Google Safe Browsing is one of the most effective ways you can fight back.
You should also report domain spoofing which uses TLS certificates to the CAs which issue them. You can send a report to Let’s Encrypt by emailing email@example.com. Entrust Datacard can be emailed at ECS.firstname.lastname@example.org, and DigiCert can be emailed at email@example.com.
The fight against domain spoofing can be a winnable battle. If you’re conscientious, you can not only protect your online retailer’s valuable brand, but also prevent cyber attackers from stealing from your prospective customers. It’s a win-win.