95% of HTTPS servers vulnerable to trivial MITM attacks

Only 1 in 20 HTTPS servers correctly implements HTTP Strict Transport Security, a widely-supported security feature that prevents visitors making unencrypted HTTP connections to a server.

The remaining 95% are therefore vulnerable to trivial connection hijacking attacks, which can be exploited to carry out effective phishing, pharming and man-in-the-middle attacks. An attacker can exploit these vulnerabilities whenever a user inadvertently tries to access a secure site via HTTP, and so the attacker does not even need to spoof a valid TLS certificate. Because no crypto-wizardry is required to hijack an HTTP connection, these attacks are far easier to carry out than those that target TLS, such as the recently announced DROWN attack.

Background

The growth of HTTPS has been a mostly positive step in the evolution of the internet, enabling encrypted communications between more users and websites than ever before. Many high profile sites now use HTTPS by default, and millions of TLS certificates are currently in use on the web. With companies like Let's Encrypt offering free certificates and automated management tools, it is also easier than ever to deploy an HTTPS website that will be trusted by all modern browsers.

The primary purpose of a TLS certificate is to allow a browser to verify that it is communicating with the correct website. For example, if https://www.example.com uses a valid TLS certificate, then a man-in-the-middle attacker would not be able to hijack a browser's connection to this site unless he is also able to obtain a valid certificate for that domain.

A man-in-the-middle attack like this is generally not possible if the customer uses HTTPS.

A man-in-the-middle attack like this is generally not possible if the initial request from the customer uses HTTPS.

It would be extremely difficult for the attacker to obtain a valid certificate for a domain he does not control, and using an invalid certificate would cause the victim's browser to display an appropriate warning message. Consequently, man-in-the-middle attacks against HTTPS services are hard to pull off, and often not very successful. However, there are plenty of realistic opportunities to use the unencrypted HTTP protocol to attack most HTTPS websites.

HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)

Encrypted communications are an essential requirement for banks and other financial websites, but HTTPS alone is not sufficient to defend these sites against man-in-the-middle attacks. Astonishingly, many banking websites lurk amongst the 95% of HTTPS servers that lack a simple feature that renders them still vulnerable to pharming and man-in-the-middle attacks. This missing feature is HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), and only 1 in 20 secure servers currently make use of it, even though it is supported by practically all modern browsers.

Each secure website that does not implement an HSTS policy can be attacked simply by hijacking an HTTP connection that is destined for it. This is a surprisingly feasible attack vector, as there are many ways in which a user can inadvertently end up connecting via HTTP instead of HTTPS.

Manually typed URLs often result in an initial insecure request, as most users do not explicitly type in the protocol string (http:// or https://). When no protocol is given, the browser will default to HTTP – unless there is an appropriate HSTS policy in force.

To improve accessibility, most secure websites also run an HTTP service to redirect users to the corresponding HTTPS site – but this makes them particularly prone to man-in-the-middle attacks if there is no HSTS policy in force. Not only would many users be accustomed to visiting the HTTP site first, but anyone else who visits the site via an old bookmark or search engine result might also initially access the site via an insecure HTTP address. Whenever this happens, the attacker can hijack the initial HTTP request and prevent the customer being redirected to the secure HTTPS website.

This type of attack can be automated with the sslstrip tool, which transparently hijacks HTTP traffic on a network and converts HTTPS links and redirects into HTTP. This type of exploit is sometimes regarded as a protocol downgrade attack, but strictly speaking, it is not: rather than downgrading the protocol, it simply prevents the HTTP protocol being upgraded to HTTPS.

NatWest's online banking website at www.nwolb.com lacks an HSTS policy and also offers an HTTP service to redirect its customers to the HTTPS site. This setup is vulnerable to the type of man-in-the-middle attack described above.

NatWest's online banking website at www.nwolb.com lacks an HSTS policy and also offers an HTTP service to redirect its customers to the HTTPS site. This setup is vulnerable to the type of man-in-the-middle attack described above.

Vulnerable sites can be attacked on a massive scale by compromising home routers or DNS servers to point the target hostname at a server that is controlled by the attacker (a so-called "pharming" attack). Some smaller scale attacks can be carried out very easily – for example, if an attacker sets up a rogue Wi-Fi access point to provide internet access to nearby victims, he can easily influence the results of their DNS lookups.

Even if a secure website uses HTTPS exclusively (i.e. with no HTTP service at all), then man-in-the-middle attacks are still possible. For example, if a victim manually types www.examplebank.com into his browser's address bar—without prefixing it with https://—the browser will attempt to make an unencrypted HTTP connection to http://www.examplebank.com, even if the genuine site does not run an HTTP service. If this hostname has been pharmed, or is otherwise subjected to a man-in-the-middle attack, the attacker can hijack the request nonetheless and eavesdrop the connection as it is relayed to the genuine secure site, or serve phishing content directly to the victim.

In short, failing to implement an HSTS policy on a secure website means attackers can carry out man-in-the-middle attacks without having to obtain a valid TLS certificate. Many victims would fall for these attacks, as they can be executed over an unencrypted HTTP connection, thus avoiding any of the browser's tell-tale warnings about invalid certificates.

Implementing HSTS: A simple one-liner

The trivial man-in-the-middle attacks described above can be thwarted by implementing an appropriate HSTS policy. A secure website can do this simply by setting a single HTTP header in its responses:

    Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=31536000;

This header can only be set over an HTTPS connection, and instructs compatible browsers to only access the site over HTTPS for the next year (31,536,000 seconds = 1 year). This is the most common max-age value, used by nearly half of all HTTPS servers. After this HSTS policy has been applied, even if a user manually prefixes the site's hostname with http://, the browser will ignore this and access the site over HTTPS instead.

The combination of HSTS and HTTPS therefore provides a good defence against pharming attacks, as the attacker will not be able to redirect and intercept plaintext HTTP traffic when a client obeys the HSTS policy, nor will he be able to present a valid TLS certificate for the site he is impersonating.

The attacker cannot even rely on a small proportion his victims unwisely ignoring the use of an invalid certificate, as browsers must regard this situation as a hard fail when an HSTS policy is in force. The browser will simply not let the victim access the site if it finds an invalid certificate, nor will it allow an exception to be added.

When Google Chrome encounters an invalid certificate for a site that has an effective HSTS policy, the victim is not allowed to bypass the browser's warning message or add an exception.

When Google Chrome encounters an invalid certificate for a site that has an effective HSTS policy, the victim is not allowed to bypass the browser's warning message or add an exception.

To prevent other types of attack, it is also wise to add the includeSubDomains directive to ensure that every possible subdomain of a site is protected by HSTS. This mitigates cookie injection and session fixation attacks that could be executed by impersonating an HTTP site on a non-existent subdomain such as foo.www.example.com, and using it to set a cookie which would be sent to the secure site at https://www.example.com. This directive can be enabled like so:

    Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=31536000; includeSubDomains

However, some thought is required before taking the carte blanche approach of including all subdomains in an HSTS policy. The website's administrators must ensure that every single one of its subdomains supports HTTPS for at least the duration specified by the max-age parameter, otherwise users of these subdomains risk being locked out.

Setting an HSTS policy will also protect first time visitors who habitually use search bars or search engines to reach their destination. For example, typing "paypal" into Google's HTTPS search engine will yield a link to https://www.paypal.com, because Google will always link to the HTTPS version of a website if an appropriate HSTS policy exists.

HSTS preloading

HSTS is clearly an important security feature, but there are several circumstances under which its benefits will not work. Because HSTS directives are delivered via an HTTP header (over an HTTPS connection), HSTS can only instruct a browser to only use HTTPS after the browser's first visit to a secure website.

Men-in-the-middle can therefore still carry out attacks against users who have:

  • Never before visited the site.
  • Recently reinstalled their operating system.
  • Recently reinstalled their browser.
  • Switched to a new browser.
  • Switched to a new device (e.g. mobile phone).
  • Deleted their browser's cache.
  • Not visited the site within the past year (or however long the max-age period lasts).

These vulnerabilities can be eliminated by using HSTS Preloading, which ensures that the site's HSTS policy is distributed to supported browsers before the customer's first visit.

Website administrators can use the form at https://hstspreload.appspot.com/ to request for domains to be included in the HSTS Preload list maintained by Google. Each site must have a valid certificate, redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS, and serve all subdomains over HTTPS. The HSTS header served from each site must specify a max-age of at least 18 weeks (10,886,400 seconds) and include the preload and includeSubdomains directives.

It can take several months for domains to be reviewed and propagated to the latest stable versions of Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Chrome. When domains are added to the preload list, all users of these browsers will benefit from the security offered by HSTS, even if they have never visited the sites before.

Conclusions

HSTS is widely supported, but not widely implemented. Nearly all modern browsers obey HSTS policies, including Internet Explorer 11, Microsoft Edge, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera – yet less than 5% of secure websites enable this important security feature.

Secure websites that do not use HSTS are trivial to attack if the attacker can hijack a victim's web traffic, but it is even easier to defeat such attacks by implementing an HSTS policy. This begs the question of why so few websites are using HSTS.

The HSTS specification (RFC 6797) was published in 2012, and so it can hardly be considered a new technology any more. Nonetheless, many website administrators might still be unaware of its existence, or may not yet feel ready to commit to running an HTTPS-only website. These are probably the most significant reasons for its low uptake.

Some website administrators have even disabled HSTS by explicitly setting a max-age of 0 seconds. This has the effect of switching off any previously established HSTS policies, but this backpedalling can only take proper effect if every client revisits the secure site after the max-age has been set to zero. When a site implements an HSTS policy, it is effectively committed to maintaining its HTTPS service for as long as the largest max-age it has ever specified, otherwise it risks denying access to infrequent visitors. Nearly 4% of all HTTPS servers that use the Strict-Transport-Security header currently set a max-age of zero, including Twitter's t.co URL-shortener.

Browser support for HSTS can also introduce some privacy concerns. By initiating requests to several distinct hostnames (some of which enable HSTS), a hostile webpage can establish a "supercookie" to uniquely identify the client browser during subsequent visits, even if the user deletes the browser's conventional cookies. The browser will remember which pattern of hostnames had HSTS enabled, thus allowing the supercookie to persist. However, this privacy concern only affects clients and does not serve as an excuse for websites to avoid implementing their own HSTS policies.

Implementing an HSTS policy is very simple and there are no practical downsides when a site already operates entirely over HTTPS. This makes it even more surprising to see many banks failing to use HSTS, especially on their online banking platforms. This demonstrates poor security practices where it matters the most, as these are likely to be primary targets of pharming attacks.

Netcraft offers a range of services that can be used to detect and defeat large-scale pharming attacks, and security testing services that identify man-in-the-middle vulnerabilities in web application and mobile apps. Contact security-sales@netcraft.com for more information.

Most Reliable Hosting Company Sites in February 2016

Rank Performance Graph OS Outage
hh:mm:ss
Failed
Req%
DNS Connect First
byte
Total
1 GoDaddy.com Inc Linux 0:00:00 0.000 0.266 0.005 0.015 0.016
2 Netcetera Linux 0:00:00 0.004 0.077 0.087 0.178 0.178
3 Lightcrest unknown 0:00:00 0.009 0.301 0.006 0.022 0.026
4 XILO Communications Ltd. Linux 0:00:00 0.009 0.235 0.075 0.143 0.143
5 Bigstep Linux 0:00:00 0.013 0.151 0.062 0.124 0.124
6 Qube Managed Services Linux 0:00:00 0.018 0.152 0.060 0.128 0.128
7 Hostname.cl Linux 0:00:00 0.018 0.485 0.203 0.422 0.422
8 Datapipe Linux 0:00:00 0.022 0.156 0.013 0.026 0.032
9 LeaseWeb Linux 0:00:00 0.022 0.368 0.026 0.054 0.054
10 Anexia Linux 0:00:00 0.022 0.194 0.086 0.177 0.177

See full table

GoDaddy had the most reliable hosting company site in February, responding to every Netcraft request. This is the ninth consecutive month that GoDaddy has featured in the top 10, and the fourth time it has reached first place in the past 12 months.

Netcetera took second place in February with just one failed request. Based in the Isle of Man, Netcetera is celebrating its 20th birthday in 2016 with a series of special promotions. Over 11 years of monitoring by Netcraft, Netcetera has maintained a 99.96% uptime record.

Third place goes to Lightcrest, appearing in the top 10 for the third time in four months. Although both Lightcrest and XILO had two failed requests each, Lightcrest had a faster average connection time. Lightcrest's customers can use its Kahu Compute Fabric platform for Lightcrest-hosted deployments and those hosted remotely.

Linux remains the dominant choice of operating system among the most reliable hosting sites. This is the eighth consecutive month without any sites powered by Windows appearing in the top 10.

Netcraft measures and makes available the response times of around forty leading hosting providers' sites. The performance measurements are made at fifteen minute intervals from separate points around the internet, and averages are calculated over the immediately preceding 24 hour period.

From a customer's point of view, the percentage of failed requests is more pertinent than outages on hosting companies' own sites, as this gives a pointer to reliability of routing, and this is why we choose to rank our table by fewest failed requests, rather than shortest periods of outage. In the event the number of failed requests are equal then sites are ranked by average connection times.

Information on the measurement process and current measurements is available.

February 2016 Web Server Survey

In the February 2016 survey we received responses from 933,892,520 sites and 5,796,210 web-facing computers.

Microsoft has edged closer towards Apache, with an increase of 16.1 million sites bringing its total up by 6.14% to 279 million. Apache's relatively modest growth of 0.66% has put Microsoft within 3 percentage points of Apache's leading market share of 32.8%.

In terms of web-facing computers, Apache maintains a much clearer lead with a 47.8% share of the market. Microsoft also takes second place by this metric, albeit with a share that is more than 20 percentage points behind Apache. However, both Apache and Microsoft suffered small losses in market share as nginx continues to exhibit strong growth: This month, nginx gained 21,100 computers, increasing its market share by 0.26 points to 13.96%.

nginx 1.9.11 mainline was released on 9th February. This version introduced support for dynamic modules, enabling selective loading of both third-party and some native modules at runtime. In previous versions, nginx modules had to be statically linked into an nginx binary built from source, causing the module to be loaded every time even if it was not going to be used.

The latest version of Microsoft Internet Information Services, IIS 10.0, is still very rare in the wild, as its primary deployment platform (Windows Server 2016) has yet to be released. Fewer than 5,000 websites are currently using IIS 10.0, and these are being served either from technical preview versions of Windows Server 2016, or from Windows 10 machines.

The latest technical preview version of Windows Server 2016 also supports a headless deployment option known as Nano Server. This is a stripped-down version of Windows Server, without a graphical interface and a few other features that are not essential for modern web applications. As a result, it typically requires fewer updates to be installed – and consequently, fewer reboots, too.

Despite losing a small amount of market share, Apache also showed a reasonable growth of 15,600 computers. Similar to last month, a significant proportion of this growth was due to the appearance of more Western Digital My Cloud consumer storage devices.

The total number of My Cloud devices in the survey now stands at 583,400, which is 68,400 more than last month; however, the number of devices that are exposed directly to the internet grew by only 11,100.

Western Digital is using Amazon AWS to host the servers that proxy requests to My Cloud devices in Relay mode. Most of these relay servers have been configured to serve a few thousand devices each, and so the 331,000 devices that are currently using Relay mode contribute fewer than 200 computers towards Apache's total.

Interestingly, while most web-facing My Cloud devices are hosted in the US, more than half of the *.wd2go.com hostnames used by the relay servers are hosted in Amazon's EU regions.

Total number of websites

Web server market share

DeveloperJanuary 2016PercentFebruary 2016PercentChange
Apache304,271,06133.56%306,292,55732.80%-0.76
Microsoft262,471,88628.95%278,593,04129.83%0.88
nginx141,443,63015.60%137,459,39114.72%-0.88
Google20,799,0872.29%20,640,0582.21%-0.08
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eBay scripting flaws being actively exploited by fraudsters

Fraudsters are actively exploiting scripting flaws in eBay's auction platform to carry out a spate of highly convincing scams. The latest attacks steal money and credentials, and are still taking place today, despite a recent partial fix that attempted to stop these flaws being exploited.

Victims stand to lose thousands of pounds in these attacks.

Victims stand to lose thousands of pounds in these clever phishing attacks, which are launched directly from eBay's own website.

eBay had originally declined to fix the vulnerability at all, resulting in widespread criticism from security experts, which perhaps influenced its subsequent decision to implement a partial fix. eBay later said that it took the issue very seriously, and that it did not find any fraudulent activity stemming from this incident.

However, this week, Netcraft has seen several fraudulent eBay listings that actively exploit these flaws. Not only does this demonstrate that the underlying issue has not been adequately fixed, but it shows that it is also being exploited by fraudsters.

Despite the partial fix, fraudsters are still able to include malicious JavaScript in eBay listing descriptions, and these scripts are being used to great effect. Merely viewing a fraudster's auction will cause a user to be automatically diverted away from the genuine eBay website and onto a phishing site.

These latest incidents rank amongst the most impressive phishing attacks, as they are so incredibly convincing. They are launched from the genuine eBay website, which will have already gained the victim's trust, and no untoward user interaction is required. Because the phishing site looks so similar to the genuine eBay website, it is likely that most victims would never realise they have ended up on a fraudulent website, especially as they did not click on any links pointing to external sites.

This week's attacks appeared to be posted from compromised eBay accounts, some of which had been created several years ago. This makes it difficult for victims to identify the listings as fraudulent, as they are ostensibly posted by users who have been members for several years and have 100% positive feedback.

A real attack in detail

Motor vehicles are a magnet for fraudulent activity on eBay due to the high values of such items. Fraudsters will often copy the contents of a previous, legitimate listing and use it to create their own listing at a temptingly low price.

Three months ago, the following motorhome was sold on eBay for £19,295. This was a genuine listing for a genuine vehicle, so some details have been redacted to protect the innocent:

A legitimate eBay auction that ended three months ago. The details of this motorhome auction were reused in one of this week's fraudulent listings.

A legitimate eBay auction that ended three months ago. The details of this motorhome auction were reused in one of this week's fraudulent listings.

This week, a fraudster copied the contents of this auction and used it to create his own fraudulent listing. This would likely be found by anyone searching for similar motorhomes:

The fraudulent listing, as it appeared in eBay's search results.

The fraudulent listing, as it appeared in eBay's search results.

The fraudulent listing was posted from an eBay account created in April 2010. The user has 100% positive feedback accrued from previous, legitimate purchases, which suggests that the account had been compromised by the fraudster. The fraudulent listing has since been removed from eBay, but the legitimate account remains.

The compromised account that was used to post the fraudulent listing had 100% positive feedback.

The compromised account that was used to post the fraudulent listing had 100% positive feedback.

When a victim views the fraudulent listing, he is immediately redirected to the fraudster's phishing site on btnet.info. Other than the domain name, this looks practically identical to the genuine eBay website, and also features the same username and feedback score from the compromised seller's account:

The victim is automatically redirected to this phishing site when he views the fraudulent listing on eBay. This site was reported to Netcraft and blocked.

The victim is automatically redirected to this phishing site when he views the fraudulent listing on eBay. This site was reported to Netcraft and blocked.

The significantly discounted "Buy it now" price of £6,300 would be extremely alluring to a prospective buyer, considering that the real thing sold for nearly £20,000 in a legitimate auction three months ago.

The redirection to the phishing site is carried out automatically as soon as the victim views the fraudulent listing on the eBay website. The item's description is copied from the legitimate listing we saw three months ago, but a malicious block of JavaScript has been added.

The malicious script appended to the description of the motorhome. Some of this has been blurred to prevent copycat attacks until eBay properly fixes the vulnerability.

The malicious script appended to the description of the motorhome. We have blurred the salient parts of this code to prevent copycat attacks until eBay properly fixes the vulnerability.

The malicious script has been specially constructed in order to bypass the cross-site scripting filters that eBay has implemented.

eBay disallows certain strings in the item description when a listing is created, but this week's attacks demonstrate that this security measure is insufficient.

eBay disallows certain strings in the item description when a listing is created, but this week's attacks demonstrate that this security measure is still insufficient.

When the external script is executed by the victim's browser, it redirects the victim to a URL redirection service, TinyURL, which in turn redirects him to the fraudster's phishing site.

The externally hosted JavaScript, which is executed by the fraudulent eBay listing. This site uses a .space domain that was registered on 6 February.

The externally hosted JavaScript, which is executed by the fraudulent eBay listing. This file is served from a .space domain that was registered on 6 February.

After the above JavaScript has redirected the victim to the phishing site, a server-side PHP script named php.php uses a random number generator to create a new PHP script, such as 54388632.php. The victim is then redirected to the newly-created script, which displays the fraudulent content. The randomly-named file is then deleted from the web server. If the victim were to notice that he was on a phishing site, it would be difficult to report it to anyone, as the URL in the victim's address bar would lead to a 404 Not Found error page on any subsequent visit.

The phishing site uses a domain name that was registered through Launchpad.com less than two weeks ago, and there is no content on the site's homepage. This indicates that the domain was probably registered specifically for use in these fraudulent eBay listings. Both this site btnet.info and the malicious JavaScript file on opengames.space are hosted by HostGator.

If the victim attempts to ask the seller a question, he will be taken to an enquiry form that is hosted on the fraudster's phishing site. Any questions asked here are sent directly to the fraudster.

Any questions asked about the item are sent directly to the fraudster.

Any questions asked about the item are sent directly to the fraudster.

If the victim tries to make a Best Offer for the vehicle, he is prompted to enter an email address. This address is later used by the fraudster to solicit payment directly from the victim, often via bank transfer.

After making an offer, the victim can soon expect to hear from the fraudster.

After making an offer, the victim can soon expect to hear from the fraudster.

This particular phishing attack demonstrates some interesting evolutions in the fraudsters' methodologies. Not only is it rather cleverly launched from the legitimate eBay site, and uses randomly-named files that are deleted to evade detection, but it also tries to avoid leaving any evidence in eBay's server logs: While all of the pictures used on the spoof auction page are stolen from the earlier legitimate auction, they are either encoded as inline Base64-encoded images, or are served from the fraudster's own website. This means that no Referer headers will be transmitted to eBay's web servers, which would otherwise give away the location of the phishing site.

This phishing attack is unusual in that it does not attempt to steal the victim's eBay password or any other account credentials. This subtlety could contribute to its effectiveness, as some victims might more readily identify a scam that does ask for a password.

The victim's offer and email address is all the fraudster needs in order to solicit payment. To instil further trust in the victim, these payment requests usually claim to use a third-party escrow service to accept the money. A genuine escrow service would release the money to the seller only if the customer receives the goods they paid for, but unsurprisingly, these eBay vehicle scams do not use a real escrow service. When the victim transfers his money to the specified account, it goes straight to the fraudster.

A fake escrow email from a fraudulent car seller. This one purportedly related to the sale of a Volkswagen T5 Transporter.

A fake escrow email from a fraudulent car seller. This one purportedly related to the sale of a Volkswagen T5 Transporter.

To discourage the victim from visiting their bank, who might warn him that it is a scam, the email adds: "You can pay using your online baking [sic], because it saves a considerable amount of time. Online Banking saves you the trouble of going to a bank and wasting your valuable time (payments can also be made on the weekends)."

Old habits die hard

Netcraft highlighted the risks posed by allowing JavaScript in eBay listings almost two years ago, when a series of similar attacks took place. eBay's only apparent protection against these attacks was a policy that we demonstrated can be easily ignored by fraudsters.

As eBay's latest fix is only a "partial" one, it suggests that eBay still might not have any intention of completely fixing these vulnerabilities. eBay previously explained that allowing active content in legitimate listings is worth the security risk, as the benefits outweigh the likelihood of being attacked.

A plea for help: This fraud victim claims to have been scammed on eBay after sending a bank transfer to pay for a caravan.

A plea for help: This fraud victim claims to have been scammed on eBay this week after sending a bank transfer to pay for a caravan.

These attacks have continued throughout the week. The following example was found earlier today – victims were redirected to this phishing site after viewing yet another specially crafted listing on the real eBay website.

CAPTION

Another eBay phishing site, which victims are automatically redirected to after viewing a specially crafted listing on the real eBay website.

It is likely that both examples have been orchestrated by the same fraudster, as both domain names were registered through the same company two weeks ago. However, today's example also attempts to steal the victim's eBay username and password when the victim clicks the Buy it now button.

The latest example also tries to steal the victim's eBay username and password.

The latest example also tries to steal the victim's eBay username and password.

The fraudster can use these stolen credentials to create additional fraudulent listings on his victims' own eBay accounts, which in turn can be used to steal more accounts and more money. This is a cycle of fraud that will be difficult to stop if eBay does not fully resolve this vulnerability.

AlphaBay darknet phishing attack impersonates .onion domain

Fraudsters operating on the AlphaBay darknet market are using phishing attacks to steal login credentials from other criminals. In this particular attack, the phishing site mimics the address of one of AlphaBay's Tor hidden services.

Dark Wars: A phishing site impersonating the AlphaBay Market

Dark Wars: A phishing site impersonating the AlphaBay Market

AlphaBay describes itself as a darknet market that specialises in all kinds of illegal goods, and so its users are reminded to access the site directly through the Tor anonymity network, rather than via a WWW to .onion gateway. However, this is not the only thing that users need to worry about: some of the criminals on AlphaBay also try to steal other users' credentials by sending messages to trick them into visiting phishing sites.

AlphaBay was originally founded by members of Russian carding forums, but the range of illegal goods being sold on the anonymous marketplace now includes drugs and weapons as well as credit card details. AlphaBay uses a .onion address which allows the website to run as a hidden service on the Tor network – this means that the physical location of the website remains anonymous, as well as the locations of Tor users who access it.

The genuine AlphaBay hidden service uses the address pwoah7foa6au2pul.onion. A hidden service's address is derived from the public key used to authenticate the connection, so it is difficult to convincingly impersonate the site without having access to the owner's key pair. However, the fraudster could easily have computed a partial match using tools such as scallion; for example, Netcraft generated the lookalike address pwoah7f5ivq74fmp.onion within minutes.

However, in the case of this phishing attack, the fraudster has simply created a lookalike domain on the public internet, using the address pwoah7foa6au2pul.me.pn.

The genuine AlphaBay Market login form, accessed via its .onion address on a Tor-enabled browser.

The genuine AlphaBay Market login form, accessed via its .onion address using the Tor Browser Bundle.

The address used by the phishing site will look familiar to regular users of the AlphaBay darknet market, but rather than pointing to an anonymous hidden service, it points to a phishing site hosted by AttractSoft GmbH in Germany.

The phishing site used in this attack was discovered on Thursday and is still operating at the time of writing. It mimics the genuine AlphaBay Market login page, and prompts the victim to enter his username and password. A client-side check forces the victim to also complete the security code CAPTCHA field, although the phishing site does not care whether the correct value was entered.

The stolen credentials are then submitted to a PHP script, which immediately redirects the victim to the genuine AlphaBay hidden service.

This phishing attack makes use of a me.pn domain, which was likely chosen because addresses under this domain can be registered for free, and the ".me.pn" string bears a (somewhat tenuous) similarity to the .onion TLD, at least in terms of its length.

Ironically, some of the services that can be bought and sold on the AlphaBay Market include spam sending services, "bank drops" (for receiving fraudulent bank transfers), account details, and other services useful to fraudsters engaged in phishing. This attack could therefore be viewed as yet another example of fraudsters defrauding fraudsters.

In a further show of there being no honour amongst thieves, the HTML source of the phishing site appears to have been copied from a previous lookalike site using the onion-market.co domain name. This domain name has since been repossessed by its registrar, GoDaddy, which is typical of domains that have been paid for with fraudulent funds or subjected to chargebacks.

The content of the phishing site was mirrored from another site that has since been suspended.

The content of the phishing site was mirrored from another site that has since been suspended.

AlphaBay has been operating since the end of 2014, when it helped fill the void left after the demise of Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0. It has since become one of the largest darknet markets, gaining wide publicity after it was used to sell compromised Uber accounts and data stolen from the TalkTalk breach in 2015.

Most Reliable Hosting Company Sites in January 2016

Rank Performance Graph OS Outage
hh:mm:ss
Failed
Req%
DNS Connect First
byte
Total
1 Datapipe Linux 0:00:00 0.004 0.151 0.012 0.025 0.031
2 XILO Communications Ltd. Linux 0:00:00 0.008 0.228 0.069 0.137 0.137
3 Netcetera Linux 0:00:00 0.008 0.073 0.085 0.173 0.173
4 GoDaddy.com Inc Linux 0:00:00 0.013 0.284 0.007 0.017 0.018
5 Qube Managed Services Linux 0:00:00 0.013 0.151 0.059 0.120 0.120
6 EveryCity SmartOS 0:00:00 0.013 0.090 0.065 0.130 0.130
7 Memset Linux 0:00:00 0.017 0.158 0.066 0.168 0.269
8 Swishmail FreeBSD 0:00:00 0.021 0.151 0.063 0.125 0.167
9 ServerStack Linux 0:00:00 0.021 0.133 0.066 0.132 0.132
10 INetU Linux 0:00:00 0.021 0.145 0.068 0.134 0.134

See full table

With just a single failed request, Datapipe had the most reliable hosting company site in January. It featured in the top ten for all but one month in 2015 and last topped the table in July.

In second place in January was XILO Communications Ltd with just two failed requests. XILO’s website has maintained 100% uptime over the past year, and 99.990% since October 2011. XILO’s servers are located in Maidenhead, just outside London, and use XILO’s own network hardware.

Netcetera came in third place, also with just two failed requests, albeit with a slightly longer average connection time. Netcetera is based on the Isle of Man and has recently expanded its Dataport data centre where it offers carbon neutral shared, dedicated, and cloud hosting, as well as co-location options.

GoDaddy reached fourth place in January, marking its eighth consecutive appearance in the top ten. Since June, GoDaddy has maintained an impressive average connection time of just under eight milliseconds, with no single month's average being more than nine milliseconds.

As it did through the entirety of 2015, Linux has once again dominated as the most commonly used operating system amongst the top ten hosting company websites. The only two companies in January’s table not using Linux to host their websites are Swishmail (FreeBSD) and EveryCity (SmartOS).

Netcraft measures and makes available the response times of around forty leading hosting providers' sites. The performance measurements are made at fifteen minute intervals from separate points around the internet, and averages are calculated over the immediately preceding 24 hour period.

From a customer's point of view, the percentage of failed requests is more pertinent than outages on hosting companies' own sites, as this gives a pointer to reliability of routing, and this is why we choose to rank our table by fewest failed requests, rather than shortest periods of outage. In the event the number of failed requests are equal then sites are ranked by average connection times.

Information on the measurement process and current measurements is available.