It might sound the same, but this isn’t how you spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Phishing is an identity theft scam that uses an insidious email masquerading as one you can trust in an attempt to make off with your personal or financial information.
What Are Phishing Scams?
Video: What is phishing and how can you recognize it?
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How to spot a phishing scam
Phishing scams are so successful because they dress up like an important message from a legitimate company that you probably have a relationship with. These emails show up in your inbox either raising an alarm that your information may have been compromised so you need to verify it or asking for a routine update of account information.
They will always include a link that you need to click on in order to follow the instructions in the message. If you click on the link, chances are you’ll open the gateway for hackers to install malware or another virus on your computer. You might also inadvertently change your password or fill out a form on the scammer's website instead of the real one. Armed with your sensitive information, the scammers can easily steal your identity and even your money. They may also lock you out of your accounts until you pay a ransom.
But all hope is not lost. You can take extra care to weed out phishing scam emails before they worm their way into your private data.
1. Double-check before you click
Before clicking on a link in any email, carefully review the contents, the email address it came from, and the type of information it’s asking for. If any of those seem “off” to you, don’t click.
2. Pay attention to sender email addresses
Phishing scams make up email addresses that closely resemble the real thing. If you have other messages from the company in question, look at them to see if the addresses are the same. Red flags include extra characters, a different domain extension (.org, .com, etc.), or different spelling.
3. Watch out for bad grammar
Sloppy grammar, bad spelling, missing words, or improper tenses are dead giveaways that there’s something phishy going on.
4. Look for company info
Phishing scams like to copy logos, footers, disclaimers, and other identifying information to look legit. If any of these are missing or different than usual—or if it just doesn’t feel right—send the message to the trash and contact the company via phone.
Err on the side of caution if you have any inkling that an email may be part of a phishing scam. If you’re concerned about deleting a message that may be important to your account, contact the company directly by phone or a verified email address you’ve used in the past to report the message and find out if you need to do anything in regard to your account.
How to prevent phishing
In addition to keeping a watchful eye on any messages you receive, you can use technology to identify phishing scams.
Start by using anti-malware software that helps weed out phishing scams when they try to enter your email account. Choose software that also scans email attachments.
Then add an extra layer of protection with an anti-phishing browser extension, which will help identify fraudulent websites if you accidentally click a phishing link.
Types of phishing attacks
Some phishers have moved on from emails and will text or call you instead. Text-based phishing is known as smishing (SMS + phishing). Call-based phishing is vishing (voice + phishing).
Most phishing scam artists send one generic email to thousands of people in hopes of catching a few victims. When the scammers target someone in particular, it's known as spear phishing. And when that someone holds the key (or password) to a huge bank account or privileged information, it's called whaling.
How to report phishing emails
Report phishing emails to the Anti-Phishing Working Group by simply forwarding the suspicious email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also handles phishing reports. Visit their fraud complaint website to fill out a report.
Technically, it isn't illegal to send a phishing email. But phishers can get in plenty of legal trouble for things like wire fraud and identity theft.
Phishing emails try to get you to download an attachment or click a link. There may be malware embedded in the attachment, or the link may prompt you to enter login information for a bank account. The scammers create websites that look so close to the real deal that you might not realize it's a scam.
Exit the site immediately. Don't enter any information. If you did enter information such as a password, immediately login to the account through proper channels (preferably on a separate device) and change the password.
Run a malware and antivirus scan on your computer to make sure nothing malicious has been downloaded.
Don't forget to report the phishing attempt.
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