2004 will be remembered as the year that online scammers went phishing, leading to a sudden explosion in online financial fraud and identity theft, according to security experts.
MessageLabs' annual roundup said that it was picking up 250,000 phishing emails a month at the start of the year. By October this had risen to nearly five million.
Spammers too were increasingly busy, with nearly three out of every four emails sent in 2004 being spam, up from 40 per cent in 2003. In the year's worst month, July, the figure hit 94 per cent.
"The major development of the year has undoubtedly been the emergence of phishing. In just 12 months it has firmly established itself as a threat to any organisation or individual conducting business online," said Mark Sunner, chief technology officer at MessageLabs.
"We believe that the singling out of certain companies to be the victim of phishing attacks could signal the beginning of a wider trend.
"Already particular businesses are threatened and blackmailed, indicating a shift from the random, scattergun approach, to customised attacks designed to take advantage of the perceived weaknesses of some businesses."
This summer was also the busiest time for virus writers. By June the number of emails carrying an infection was up to one in 10, but this settled down in the second half of the year to give an overall annual figure of six per cent.
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