HTTPS phishing websites have increased significantly this year, to the point that more HTTPS phishing websites are now being registered than legitimate websites with SSL certificates, according to a new analysis by PhishLabs.

If a website starts with HTTPS it means that a SSL certificate is held by the site owner, that the connection between your browser and the website is encrypted, and you are protected from man-in-the-middle attacks. It was not long ago that a green padlock next to the URL, along with a web address starting with HTTPS, meant you could be reasonably confident that that the website you were visiting was genuine. That is no longer the case, yet many people still believe that to be true.

According to PhisLabs, a recent survey showed that 80% of respondents felt the green padlock and HTTPS indicated the site was legitimate and/or secure. The truth is that all it means is traffic between the browser and the website is encrypted. That will prevent information being intercepted, but if you are on a phishing website, it doesn’t matter whether it is HTTP or HTTPS. The end result will be the same.

Over the past couple of years there has been a major push to move websites from HTTP to HTTPS, and most businesses have now made the switch. This was in part due to Google and Firefox issuing warnings about websites that lacked SSL certificates, alerting visitors that entering sensitive information on the sites carried a risk. Since October, Google has been labelling websites as Not Secure in the URL via the Chrome browser.

Such warnings are sufficient to see web visitors leave in their droves and visit other sites where they are better protected. It is no surprise that businesses have sat up and taken notice and made the switch. According to Let’s Encrypt, 65% of websites are now on HTTPS, compared to just 45% in 2016.

However, it is not only legitimate businesses that are switching to secure websites. Phishers are taking advantage of the benefits that come from HTTPS websites. Namely trust.

Consumer trust in HTTPS means cybercriminals who register HTTPS sites can easily add legitimacy to their malicious websites. It is therefore no surprise that HTTPS phishing websites are increasing. As more legitimate websites switch to HTTPS, more phishing websites are registered with SSL certificates. If that were not the case, the fact that a website started with HTTP would be a clear indicator that it may be malicious and cybercriminals would be at a distinct disadvantage.

What is a surprise is the extent to which HTTPS is being abused by scammers. The PhishLabs report shows that in the third quarter of 2017, almost a quarter of phishing websites were hosted on HTTPS pages. Twice the number seen in the previous quarter. An analysis of phishing sites spoofing Apple and PayPal showed that three quarters are hosted on HTTPS pages. Figures from 2016 show that less than 3% of phishing sites were using HTTPS. In 2015 it was just 1%.

While checks are frequently performed on websites before a SSL certificate is issued, certification companies do not check all websites, which allows the scammers to obtain SSL certificates. Many websites are registered before any content is uploaded, so even a check of the site would not provide any clues that the site will be used for malicious purposes. Once the certificate is obtained, malicious content is uploaded.

The PhishLabs report also shows there is an approximate 50/50 spread between websites registered by scammers and legitimate websites that have been compromised and loaded with phishing webpages. Just because a site is secure, it does not mean all plugins are kept up to date and neither that the latest version of the CMS is in use. Vulnerabilities exist on many websites and hackers are quick to take advantage.

The rise in HTTPS phishing websites is bad news for consumers and businesses alike. Consumers should be wary that HTTPS is no guarantee that website is legitimate. Businesses that have restricted Internet access to only allow HTTPS websites to be visited may have a false sense of security that they are protected from phishing and other malicious sites, when that is far from being the case.

For the best protection, businesses should consider implementing a web filter that scans the content of webpages to identify malicious sites, and that the solution is capable of decrypting secure sites to perform scans of the content.

For more information on how a web filter can help to protect your organization from phishing and malware downloads, give the TitanHQ sales team a call today.