Online scammers are taking advantage of the global economic downturn and targeting those who have been affected by the recession, according to a new report.

Brand protection agency Mark Monitor claims that there has been a marked increase in the number of phishing attacks masquerading as leading financial brands in an attempt to lure in customers who have been adversely affected by the financial crisis.

The survey found that fraudsters were increasingly targeting some of America’s leading financial institutions for issues such as refinancing, unemployment, remortgaging and property repossession.

The research found what Mark Monitor described as “profound levels of brand abuse” for financial brands, particularly with regards to phishing email scams.

The report found that a record 502 organizations were phished in the first three months of 2009, an increase of 24 percent from the same period last year. Of those, a total of 93 organizations were phished for the first time with 82% being financial brands.

But while financial services such as banks and other lenders remain a popular target, payment service providers, such as Paypal and Nochex, were the most phished category, making up 42% of total phish attacks.

Unsurprisingly, social networking scams such as those currently prevalent on Twitter and Facebook haven also increased. Social networking scams, which allow fraudsters to bypass the email filtering systems found in many antivirus software packages, increased by a massive 241% in the first three months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008.

Frederick Felman, chief marketing officer at MarkMonitor, suggested that scammers would continue to target brands which offered them access to the most vulnerable users.

“Scammers are preying upon consumer hardship, demonstrating incredible creativity in combining technology, social engineering techniques and current events,” said Mr Felman. “In this digital age, as the Internet pervades business and leisure, scam artists and fraudsters are quick to profit at the expense of trusted brands across a wide spectrum of industries.”

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