Don't bank on it

A new research report reveals that websites formerly operated by US banks are proving to be good vehicles for fraudsters, spammers and virus writers.

Websites formerly operated by US banks that have closed down are good vehicles for fraudsters, spammers and virus writers, according to a new research report by Tyler Moore of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Richard Clayton of the University of Cambridge.

To write the report, entitled The Ghosts of Banking Past: Empirical Analysis of Closed Bank Websites, Moore and Clayton extracted details of the 3,181 banks that have closed their doors or merged with another institution since 2003 and looked into what had happened to the 2,302 domain names the banks had previously used. They found that 33% "had passed into the hands of people who are exploiting the residual good reputation attached to the domain by hosting adverts, distributing malware or carrying out search engine optimization activities."

Clayton and Moore began their research after coming across what appeared to be a legitimate website for the Mid Valley Bank in California, a bank which had ceased all activity a number of years ago. Reconstructing the history of the website, they discovered that it was registered in 2009 to a resident of Novokuznetsk, Russia. A year later, the registration had changed to a proxy service, still in operation, suggesting its ownership had changed hands again.

The "News" page of the "bank" site had several stories that promoted rare earth metal investments, gold sales and reverse mortgages. Some stories even referred to events that would occur several months into the future…

The researchers also uncovered websites that had been seeded with malware to infect the computers of visitors, others that hosted advertisements, cloaking them under the good reputation of the former bank. A small number ad been turned into fake online pharmacies or even promoted porn sites. The most "sinister" of these sites had been repurposed to resemble the sites of legitimate banks.

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