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A technique long used for profiting from the brand strength of popular domain names is finding increased use in phishing attacks. Cybersquatting (also called domain squatting) is the use of a domain name with the intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. Increasingly, attackers are tapping cybersquatting to harvest user credentials.
Last month, one such campaign targeted 1,000 users at a high-profile communications company with an email containing a supposed secure file link from an email security vendor. Once clicked, the link led to a spoofed Proofpoint page with login links for different email providers.
So prevalent are these threats that Cato Networks has added cybersquatting protection to our service. Over the past month, we’ve detected 5,000 unique squatted domains for more than 50 well-known trademarks. These domains follow certain patterns. By understanding these patterns, you’ll be more likely to protect your organization from this new threat.Ransomware is on the Rise | Download eBook
Types of Cybersquatting
There are several techniques for creating domains that may trick unsuspecting users. Here are four of the most common:
Typosquatting creates domain names that incorporate typical typos users input when attempting to access a legitimate site. A perfect example is catonetwrks.com, which leaves out the “o” in networks. The user mistypes Cato’s Web site and ends up interacting with another site used to spread misinformation, redirect the user, or download malware to the user’s system.
Combosquatting creates a domain that combines the legitimate domain with additional words or letters. For example, cato-networks.com adds a hyphen to Cato’s URL catonetworks.com. Combosquatting is often used for links in phishing emails.
Here are two examples of counterfeit websites that use combosquatting to prompt the user to submit sensitive information. The domain names, amazon-verifications[.]com and amazonverification[.]tk, make the user think they are interacting with a legitimate website owned by Amazon.
Levelsquatting inserts the target domain into the subdomain of the cybersquatting URL. This attack usually targets mobile device users who may only see part of the URL displayed in the small mobile-device browser window. A perfect example of levelsquatting would be login.catonetworks.com.fake.com. The user may only see the prefix of login.catonetworks.com on his Apple or Android screen and thinks it’s a legitimate Cato Networks login site.
Homographsquatting uses various character combinations that resemble the target domain visually. One example is catonet0rks.com, which uses a zero digit that looks like the letter “o” or ccitonetworks.com, where the combination of “c” and “i” after the initial “c” looks to users like the letter “a.”
Homographsquatting can also use Punycode to include non-ASCII characters in international domain names (IDN). An example would be cаtonetworks.com (xn--ctonetworks-yij.com in Punycode). In this case the “a” is a non-ASCII character from the Cyrillic alphabet.
Here is a non-malicious example of a Facebook homograph domain (xn--facebok-y0a[.]com in Punycode) offered for sale. The squatted domain is used for the owner’s personal profit.
And here is another use of homographsquatting, this time going after Microsoft users. The domain name – nnicrosoft[.]online – uses double “n”s to look like the “m” in “microsoft.”
How to Detect Cybersquatting
To detect cybersquatted domains, Cato Networks uses a method called Damerau-Levenshtein distance. This approach counts the minimum number of operations (insertions, deletions, substitution, or transposition of two adjacent characters) needed to change one word into the other.
For example, netflex.com has an edit distance of 1 from the legitimate site, netflix.com via the substitution the “i” character with “e”.
Cato Networks configures the edit distance used to classify squatted domains dynamically for each squatted trademark, taking into consideration the length and word similarity. Think of the words that can be generated with a 2 edit distance from the name Instagram or DHL, for example.
We also look at who registered the domain. You might be surprised to learn that many domains of trademarks with common typos are registered by the trademark owner to redirect the user to the correct site. Detecting a domain registered by anyone other than the trademark owner arouses suspicion.
Checking the domain age and registrar also turns up clues. Newly registered domains and domains from low-reputation registrars are more likely to be associated with unwanted and malicious activity than others.
Separating Squatted from Non-squatted Domains
In October 2021 alone, Cato Networks used these methods to detect more than 5,000 unique squatted domains for more than 50 well-known trademarks. The graphic below shows that fewer than 20% were owned by the legitimate trademark owner.
Additionally, Cato’s data shows that legitimate companies tend to register domains that include their trademark with combinations of other characters and typical typos. Domains that are not registered by trademark owners tend to have a higher percentage of trademarks in the subdomain level, i.e. levelsquatting.
Finally, this graphic of Cato Networks data shows that many of the squatted domains target search engines, social media, Office suites and e-commerce websites.
Don’t Wait to Identify Cybersquatting
There is no doubt that cybersquatting can be used in a variety of ways to target unsuspecting users and companies for a data breach. Organizations need to educate themselves on the perils of cybersquatting and incorporate tools and techniques for detecting phishing and other attacks that use this method for nefarious purposes. The good news is that Cato customers can now take advantage of Cato’s cybersquatting detection to protect their users and precious data.