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Phishing Definition & Meaning

Phishing is a cyber crime scam that's been around since the 1980s and is used to trick victims into sharing personal information via email, phone call, or text. Scammers typically focus on passwords, account numbers, and Social Security numbers. They use stolen information to gain access to email, bank, or other accounts that result in identity theft or financial loss. They pose as legitimate organizations to gain trust and lure victims into their scheme. Phishing attacks are launched daily, which can result in a collective loss of $57 million in just one year. 

Phishing comes in many different forms. One example is spear phishing, where scammers target a specific person or company. Whaling targets senior executives. Clone phishing is cloning previous emails sent by reliable sources with the replacement or addition of a malicious attachment. Voice phishing, or vishing, prompts victims to enter personal information over the phone. SMS phishing, or smishing, urges victims to call a number, click a link, or email a specified address sent via text message.

How to spot phishing

Phishing scams often have similar features that are easy to spot. These include:

  • Too good to be true announcements or attention-grabbing statements that offer something unbelievable. These phishing scams announce you as the winner of a lavish prize even though you didn't enter any contests. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 
  • Creating a sense of urgency by telling you to act fast because a deal will expire in a few moments or an account will be suspended if your information isn't updated immediately. Most reliable organizations give you plenty of time to respond and never ask for updated personal details over the internet. 
  • Hyperlinks to popular websites with slight misspellings in the URL. A way to combat this common tactic is to always hover over a suspicious hyperlink before clicking. 
  • Don't open any attachments from unknown senders or unexpected emails as a good rule of thumb. These attachments typically contain ransomware or other viruses. The only file attachment that would be safe to click is a .txt file
  • Avoid opening emails from unknown or unusual senders or even from senders you do recognize but something seems off. 

You can prevent phishing scams by turning on spam filters, changing browser settings to only allow reliable websites to open, changing passwords frequently, and having different passwords for different accounts. 

What to do if you're the victim of a phishing scam

Head to IdentityTheft.gov if you responded to a possible phishing scam and shared personal information. Update your computer's security software and run a scan if you clicked on suspicious links or attachments. Be sure to report phishing scams by emailing reportphishing@apwg.org and filing a complaint with ftc.gov/complaint.










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