Phishing is an identity-theft scam that can use emails and websites to trick people into giving out personal information, such as credit card numbers, usernames and passwords, or Social Security Numbers.
Phishing is usually done by hijacking the brand identity of a bank or an online store in a spoofed email that is distributed widely. The email usually contains a link to a log-in webpage designed to look like the company's actual site. The scam uses the log-in page to capture information you provide, then sells or uses the information for malicious purposes.
Five ways to avoid falling victim to a phishing scam
- Always be suspicious of emails asking for sensitive information. Email is not a secure form of communication. Organizations you do business with already know your account information and will never request it in an email. Phishers usually include false statements to create a sense of urgency for information, such as, "Your account will be terminated unless you respond immediately."
- Never respond to an email request for personal information. Err on the side of caution. Look at the “from” field of the email. If the organization name does not match the “reply to” organization name, the message is probably fake. (For example, a message from a local credit union or bank would not have a reply email address ending in yahoo.com.) If you ever need to provide personal information like a credit card number, be sure to use a secure, trusted website.
- Beware of phone phishing scams. If someone requests personal information on a phone call, be sure you initiated the call—not the other way around.
- Never follow the links in an email you suspect might be phishing. If you are unsure about a link you receive in an email, hover your cursor over it. If the link text doesn't match the link address, do NOT click it. Log directly onto the company’s website, or call the company. Ask if the company is legitimately asking for the information in the email.
- Make sure your operating system, antivirus software, and browser are up to date. Malware exploits vulnerabilities in the security of operating systems (such as Windows and iOS) as well as web browsers (such as Internet Explorer, FireFox etc.). Be sure you have the latest security updates installed on your computer. The ITS security information page has more information on keeping your computer and data protected.
One of the best ways to defend against deception is to take a critical look at the internet address and/or e-mail address and evaluate it for authenticity.
Websites and the originating site of an e-mail usually have an address based on the domain name – for example .com, .gov, or .edu. A list of common extensions is available in the article Understanding Web Site Names.
Ask yourself whether the extension matches the purpose of the site. For instance, a governmental site or e-mail would typically end in .gov. If the domain name associated with the site or message is .com, be suspicious.
Sometimes, the site's name ends in a country code (e.g. .uk, ro, .ru or .ca). When you see this, judge whether it’s being used in the correct context. For example, would your local bank e-mail you from Romania or direct you to a website based there? It is unlikely they would.
Even when the site name seems plausible, watch for these other red flags:
Concealed web addresses – In web pages or e-mails, links might say one thing and link somewhere different.
Deceptive addresses – Scammers often create deceptive web addresses that resemble legitimate ones.
Forged e-mail addresses – In e-mails, the “From” address field is very easy to fake.
Deceptive links are a common trick used by scammers, both in emails and on web pages (especially advertisements). They will create a link that mimics a legitimate web address—but when you click it, it takes you to a completely different site than you expected.
An example: A phishing email sent to individuals here at the UI included the link:
Sounds legit, right? However, the underlying address was completely different, so when people clicked it they were sent to something more like this:
What’s the worst that could happen if you click one of those bad links? Your computer could be infected with malware and an infected system can do just about anything, from stealing your personal information to spamming your unsuspecting contacts in an effort to infect their machines.
How can you tell if a link is deceptive?
BEFORE you click it, hover your mouse over the link. The link it actually leads to should pop up in a box or bubble (and it may even warn you of a mismatch). Look at the URLs closely to make sure they match.
Also, be cautious of any link that doesn’t clearly indicate where it leads—particularly links that say “click here” or those that do not disclose where you go when you click them, such as those provided by URL shortening services (tinyURL, bitly, etc.).
Scammers are good at coming up with website names that seem legitimate but take you to a site you didn’t intend to visit—often a troublesome one that could infect your computer with malware.
Their trick: include just enough recognizable words and phrases to confuse people. At first glance, when you see those familiar words, it seems real. But a closer look reveals that it’s bogus.
These email messages claim to come from ITS, and you recognize phrases like uiowa and outlook.
But, both are bogus, and here’s how you can tell. Ignore everything that comes after http:// and the first “/”. What remains there, sandwiched in the middle, is the actual site name:
The first example includes “uiowa.edu,” but ends with “.ru” The “.ru” indicates a site in Russia—a highly unlikely origin for a message about any UIowa account.
The second example doesn’t have the host name, just the numeric address (IP address) that underlies a host name. A URL that only includes an IP address should be treated with great suspicion.
One more clue
We’ll wrap up this lesson with one last tip: Watch for letter substitutions.
You might see something like email@example.com, with the number 1 used in place of the lower case i. in “uiowa.”
Or, Helpdesk @its.ui0wa.edu, with a zero rather than the letter o.
It is easy to fake what appears in the “from” or “reply-to” line of an email message. If you dig a little deeper, you can confirm the message’s true origin.
When you receive an email, the message header includes standard information, like “to,” “from,” and “subject.” But there’s also a more detailed full email header that can help you trace the message back to its original source, to see if that matches up with what the more basic message header says.
If the “from” in the message header doesn’t correspond with what you see in the full version of the email header, be suspicious of a scam.
The message header in the email below indicates that the message came from Adobe. But in the full header (Part 2, below), you can see the host name, ‘mta811.email.childrensplace.com’.
Childrensplace.com is a children’s shopping website—an unlikely origin for a message from Adobe. If the email had actually come from Adobe, the “received” line would probably show that the email started its journey at adobe.com.
Also, if you scrutinize the “reply to” section of the full header, it indicates that your reply would be redirected to “support-bx9v0dvbfjbebzau60jacqc68fsb9p@ email.childrensplace.com”—not the “newsletter@ adobe-newsletter.com” address that the message appeared to come from.
Revealing the full header
The full header is not automatically visible, but it’s easy to reveal it through your email software.
Wath the speling …
Did you happen to catch the misspelling of “incorporated” in the “from” line in the example? (From: Adobe Systems Incoporated)
Spelling and grammatical errors are good indicators that an email could potentially be bad.