Microsoft on Thursday filed 117 civil lawsuits against alleged phishers trying to scam Microsoft customers out of personal information such as credit card numbers.
The lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, seek to identify large-scale scam operations and recover damages from so-called phishing operations. Phishers typically send out spam e-mail, made to look like official e-mail from a real e-commerce company, asking recipients to click on a link and update their personal information. The link takes consumers to a Web site that mimics the look of the real e-commerce company, but collects personal information for ID thieves to use.
The new phishing lawsuits -- Microsoft previously went after two other phishing schemes using lawsuits -- target unnamed defendants who sent spam e-mail and put up Web sites targeting Microsoft services such as MSN and Hotmail, Aaron Kornblum, Microsoft's Internet safety attorney, said in a press conference. Through the lawsuits, Microsoft will issue subpoenas and attempt to uncover the names of the scam artists, as well as identify support operations such as Web hosting services and mass e-mail services, he said.
Microsoft is using trademark law to target the phishers, who use the company's trademarks on their e-mail messages and Web sites, Kornblum said.
Asked if Microsoft expected to identify the creators of all 117 phishing schemes, Kornblum said the company hopes to find as many as possible. In another phishing lawsuit the company filed in October 2003, it took several months to identify a suspect, but Microsoft eventually obtained a US$3 million default judgment against an Iowa man.
"Will we catch all 117?" Kornblum said. "I don't know. It'll definitely be a learning experience."
Microsoft has also taken action to shut down more than 1,700 phishing operations targeting its services since January 2004, according to the company.
In addition to the phishing lawsuits, Microsoft joined with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the National Consumers League to work on educating consumers about phishing attacks. The groups showed examples of phishing attacks through e-mail at the press conference, and Susan Grant, vice president and public policy director of the National Consumers League, noted that her organization has heard reports of telephone phishing schemes.
Gartner Inc. in 2004 estimated phishing cost consumers US$2 billion a year, and the phenomenon seems to be growing, said Jacqueline Beauchere, business strategy manager for Microsoft. She called phishing the "international cyber crime of choice" in recent years.
In February, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, introduced the Anti-Phishing Act of 2005, which would prohibit Web sites that misrepresent themselves to be that of a legitimate business, and then attempt to induce victims to divulge personal information, with the intent to commit a crime of fraud or identity theft. The bill would also outlaw the creation of such an e-mail, with penalties of up to five years in prison, plus fines.
Kornblum called phishing legislation "critical" to helping law enforcement agencies go after scam artists. "Seeing a phisher in an orange (prison) jumpsuit is an image I'd very much like to see," he said.
Among the tell-tale signs of a phishing e-mail, according Beauchere:
-- Legitimate companies don't generally ask their customers by e-mail to give away personal information such as credit card numbers.
-- Phishing e-mails often have spelling or grammatical errors.
-- Phishing e-mails often threaten recipients with immediate penalties such as a deactivation of their accounts if they don't respond. Legitimate businesses generally don't issue such urgent pleas.
-- Links in phishing e-mails often contain a legitimate Web address such as www.microsoft.com followed by an @ symbol and another Web address. Most browsers don't recognize the characters before the @ symbol, meaning the link wouldn't go to microsoft.com.
While technology companies such as Microsoft have a responsibility to protect consumers, individual Internet users also need to educate themselves about online risks, said Lydia Parnes, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Consumers actually need to be responsible," she said. "People won't leave their doors open when they leave the house."
The FTC has more tips for consumers about phishing at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/phishingalrt.htm.
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