All About Phishing
At first glance, it may not be obvious to the recipients that what is in their inbox is not a legitimate e-mail from a company with whom they do business.
It is becoming increasingly common to tune in to the news or load your favorite news website or Facebook and learn about another Internet email scam.
What Are Email Scams?
An email scam is a fraudulent email that appears to be from a legitimate Internet address with a justifiable request — usually to verify your personal information or account details. One example would be if you received an email that appears to be from your bank requesting you click a hyperlink in the e-mail and verify your online banking information. Usually there will be a repercussion stated in the e-mail for not following the link, such as "your account will be closed or suspended". The goal of the sender is for you to disclose personal and (or) account related information.
This type of email scam is also called phishing.
(fish´ing) (n.) The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft. The e-mail directs the user to visit a Web site where they are asked to update personal information, such as passwords and credit card, social security, and bank account numbers, that the legitimate organization already has. The Web site, however, is bogus and set up only to steal the user’s information.
How to Spot A Phishing Scam
At first glance, it may not be obvious to the recipients that what is in their inbox is not a legitimate e-mail from a company with whom they do business. The "From" field of the e-mail may have the .com address of the company mentioned in the e-mail, and the clickable link may also appear to be taking you to the company's Web site, but will in fact take you to a spoof Web site. Looks can be deceiving, but with phishing scams the e-mail is never from who is appears to be.
Common Elements of a Phishing Email
Phishing e-mails will contain some of these common elements:
- The "From Field" appears to be from the legitimate company mentioned in the e-mail. It is important to note, however, that it is very simple to change the "from" information in any e-mail client. While we're not going to tell you how, rest assured it can be done in a matter of seconds!
- The e-mail will usually contain logos or images that have been taken from the Web site of the company mentioned in the scam e-mail.
- The e-mail will contain a clickable link with text suggesting you use the inserted link to validate your information. In the image you will see that once the hyperlink is highlighted, the bottom left of the screen shows the real Web site address to which you will go. Note that the hyperlink does NOT point to the legitimate Citibank Web site URL.
In this instance, the text you click is "here", However, this may also state something like "Log-in to Citibank" or "www.citibank.com/secure" to be even more misleading. This clickable area is only text and can be changed to anything the sender wants it to read.
Additionally, you may spot some of these elements that did not appear in this particular scam:
Logos that are not an exact match to the company's logo, spelling errors, percentage signs followed by numbers or @ signs within the hyperlink, random names or e-mail addresses in the body of the text, or even e-mail headers which have nothing to do with the company mentioned in the e-mail.
Who Is Behind the Phishes & Why
The people behind phishing e-mails are scam artists. They literally send out millions of these scam e-mails in the hopes that even a few recipients will act on them and provide their personal and financial information. Anyone with an e-mail address is at risk of being phished. Any e-mail address that has been made public on the Internet (posting in forums, newsgroups or on a Web site) is more susceptible to phishing as the e-mail address can be saved by spiders that search the Internet and grab as many e-mail addresses as they can. This is why phishing is profitable for scammers; they can cheaply and easily access millions of valid e-mail addresses to send these scams to.
Common (Phish) Sense
After reading this far, we hope that you will be able to spot a phishing e-mail without too much difficulty. The e-mail represented above is just a sample; phishing e-mails can appear to be from any bank, PayPal, eBay, credit card companies, an online retail store — basically from anywhere a person may have registered for an account, and usually would have supplied financial information when registering.
Follow The Golden Rule
The golden rule to avoid being phished is to never ever click the links within the text of the e-mail. Always delete the e-mail immediately. Once you have deleted the e-mail then empty the trash box in your e-mail client as well. This will prevent "accidental" clicks from happening as well. If, for some really odd reason you have this nagging feeling that this could just possibly be a legitimate e-mail and nothing can convince you otherwise, you still need to adhere to the golden rule and not click the link in the message. For those truly worried that an account may be in jeopardy if you do not verify your information, you need to open your Web browser program of choice and type the URL to the Web site in the address field of your browser and log on to the Web site as you normally would (without going through the e-mail link as a quick route). This will provide you with accurate information about your account and allow you to completely avoid the possibility of landing on a spoof Web site and giving your information to someone you shouldn't.
What You Should Do with a Phish
Now that you know how to avoid being phished, there is still the question of what to do about phishing e-mails should you be a recipient of them. First of all, you can visit the Web site of the company from whom the e-mail appears to be from and take the time to notify them of the suspicious e-mail. Many companies do want to know if their company name is being used to try and scam people, and you'll find scam and spoof reporting links within some of these Web sites. Additionally, you can report phishing to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and depending on where you live, some local authorities may also accept Internet phishing scam reports. Lastly, you can also send details of a phishing scam to to the Anti-Phishing Working Group who is building a repository/database of common scams to help inform people of the risks.
The New Phish - Spear Phishing
As with all malicious code, once a small percentage of the population starts to catch on, the perpetrators find ways to make the attack a little different, and this case, make the phish harder to net. The newest type of phishing scam is one that focuses on a single user or a department within an organization. The Phish appears to be legitimately addressed from someone within that company, in a position of trust, and request information such as login IDs and passwords. Spear phishing scams will often appear to be from a company's own human resources or technical support divisions and may ask employees to update their username and passwords. Once hackers get this data they can gain entry into secured networks. Another type of spear phishing attack will ask users to click on a link, which deploys spyware that can steal data.
Did You Know...
The word phishing comes from the analogy that Internet scammers are using e-mail lures to fish for passwords and financial data from the sea of Internet users. The term was coined in 1996 by hackers who were stealing AOL Internet accounts by scamming passwords from unsuspecting AOL users. Since hackers have a tendency to replacing "f" with "ph" the term phishing was derived.
Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal is a freelance writer, covering business and Internet technology for more than a decade. She is also managing editor of Webopedia.com.
This article was last updated on November 11, 2015
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