Don't Get Hooked by Phishing Scams

Friday, 09 Oct 2009 09:21 AM

By Bruce Mandelblit

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Phishing is a sneaky tactic for cyberthugs to steal your personal information.

Just how sneaky is phishing?

Well, just ask the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller. He recently stated that he was almost the victim of a phishing scam. In fact, Director Mueller has said he stopped using online banking because of this attempted phishing incident.

Exactly what is phishing? Phishing is a nasty tool that unscrupulous identity thieves are using to steal personal data from hard-working Americans.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), here is how phishing works. Phishing is a high-tech scam that uses e-mail spam or pop-up messages to deceive you into disclosing your credit card numbers, bank account information, Social Security number, passwords, or other sensitive information.

Phishers send an e-mail, pop-up message, or even a text message that claims to be from a business or organization that you deal with. For example, that e-mail may purport to be from your Internet service provider (ISP), bank, online payment service, or even a government agency.

The message usually says that you need to "update" or "validate" your account information. It might threaten some dire consequence if you don't respond. The message directs you to a Web site that looks just like a legitimate organization's site. But it isn't.

What is the purpose of the bogus site? Simply to trick you into divulging your personal information so the operators can steal your identity and run up bills or commit crimes in your name.

The FTC suggests these tips to help you avoid getting hooked by a phishing scam:

  • If you get an e-mail or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies don't ask for this information via e-mail.

    If you are concerned about your account, contact the organization in the e-mail using a telephone number you know to be genuine, or open a new Internet browser session and type in the company's correct Web address. In any case, don't cut and paste the link in the message.

  • Don't e-mail personal or financial information. E-mail is not a secure method of transmitting personal information.

    If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your personal or financial information through an organization's Web site, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser's status bar or a URL for a Web site that begins "https:" (the "s" stands for "secure"). Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some phishers have forged security icons.

  • Review credit card and bank account statements as soon as you receive them to determine whether there are any unauthorized charges. If your statement is late by more than a couple of days, call your credit card company or bank to confirm your billing address and account balances.

  • Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date. Some phishing e-mails contain software that can harm your computer or track your activities on the Internet without your knowledge. Anti-virus software and a firewall can protect you from inadvertently accepting such unwanted files.

    Anti-virus software scans incoming communications for troublesome files. Look for anti-virus software that recognizes current viruses as well as older ones that can effectively reverse the damage, and that updates automatically.

    A firewall helps make you invisible on the Internet and blocks all communications from unauthorized sources. It's especially important to run a firewall if you have a broadband connection. Finally, your operating system (like Windows or Linux) may offer free software "patches" to close holes in the system that hackers or phishers could exploit.

  • Be cautious about opening any attachment or downloading any files from e-mails you receive, regardless of who sent them. The Department of Justice (DOJ), in addition, recommends that Internet users follow three simple rules when they see e-mails, Web sites, or text messages that may be part of a phishing scheme: Stop, Look and Call.

    1. STOP. Phishers typically include upsetting or exciting, but false, statements in their e-mails with one purpose in mind. They want people to react immediately to that false information by clicking on the link and inputting the requested data before they take time to think through what they are doing.

    Internet users need to resist that impulse to click immediately. No matter how upsetting or exciting the statements in the e-mail may be, there is always enough time to check out the information more closely.

    2. LOOK. Internet users should look more closely at the claims made in the e-mail, think about whether those claims make sense, and be highly suspicious if the e-mail asks for numerous items of their personal information such as account numbers, usernames or passwords.

    3. CALL. If the e-mail or Web site purports to be from a legitimate company or financial institution, Internet users should call or e-mail that company directly and ask whether the e-mail or Web site is really from that company. To be sure that they are contacting the actual company or institution where they have accounts, credit card account holders can call the toll-free customer numbers on the backs of their cards, and bank customers can call the telephone numbers on their bank statements.

    Be sure to report suspicious activity to the FTC. If you get spam that is phishing for information, forward it to spam@uce.gov. If you believe you've been scammed, file your complaint and learn more about what to do at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

    The DOJ also suggests that the public promptly report any possible phishing schemes to law enforcement so that proper action may be taken.

    For more information on phishing, log on to www.ftc.gov and www.usdoj.gov.

    My Final Thoughts: Internet crooks are always looking for fresh and devious ways to scam you, and the recent technique of phishing is merely one more tool in their arsenal of rip-off weapons. Stay alert, and use extreme vigilance when dealing with any e-mail, Web site or text message that asks for your personal or financial information.

    Copyright 2009 by Bruce Mandelblit

    Bruce Mandelblit (www.CrimeZilla.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is CrimePrevention123@yahoo.com.

    This column is provided for general information purposes only. Please check with your local law enforcement agency and legal professional for information specific to you and your jurisdiction.

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