Microsoft released two new add-ins for its MSN Search toolbar, one aimed at fighting identity theft and the other designed to help people find their favorite MSN online games more quickly.
The phishing add-in is reportedly the first technology of its kind. It responds to growing reports of identity theft that result from bogus e-mails and Web sites.
Phishing is a technique in which unsuspecting users are tricked into logging on to impostor sites which typically pose as the Web sites of banks or other financial services firms.
The fake sites invite people to enter sensitive personal information such as passwords and account numbers. That information is later used by hackers to log into victims accounts and execute fraudulent transactions.
Because unwary users are often alarmed by the urgent nature of the message, they sometimes overlook the telltale signs of potential fraud.
Phishing appears to be on the rise as a method of "social engineering," a term favored by hackers referring to ways of obtaining sensitive information from people by simply finding the right way to ask.
Experts say that identity theft is spiraling out of control, with an estimated 7 million cases of identity theft in 2004 and even more this year.
The malicious intent of the scammers who operate phishing schemes is only helped by the security holes in Microsofts popular Internet Explorer, which can allow impostors to create convincing imitations of a popular Web site, right down to the URL that is displayed in the address bar.
According to MessageLabs Ltd., the number of phishing e-mails detected in recent months has leaped dramatically, by rates of over 200 percent in a single month in some cases.
While not all identity theft is the result of phishing, the increasing number of phishing messages would indicate that the technique is paying off.
The new add-in installs itself as an element of the MSN toolbar, which runs under Internet Explorer.
When a user logs onto a Web site that shows signs of being malicious or fraudulent, the add-in is designed to check the page against online data of sites that are considered suspicious or reportedly fraudulent.
The filter will then block customers from submitting personal data to sites that are known to be fraudulent. If the site is suspicious but not known to be a fraud, the user will be warned of the risk and offered the option to not continue.
As the program encounters new fraudulent sites, it automatically forwards address information to the online database, which is then available to protect other customers.
The games add-in helps guide surfers to their favorite games on the MSN Web site through a simple drop-down interface.
It also shows which games are most popular at the moment and shows how many other people are online and available to join a game.
Additionally, the add-in allows users to bookmark their favorite games in order to return easily.
The MSN Game site is one of the more popular online game sites, with over 30 million registered users worldwide.