Phishing Away Your Identity
by Reid Goldsborough
You know not to do it. You don’t respond to those emails asking you to update your Social Security number or credit card, bank, or other financial information or verify your password at eBay, PayPal, or other e-commerce Web sites.
You don’t because you know that chances are high that this is a criminal attempt to steal your identity and your money, and you’d have to spend many tedious hours trying to straighten out the mess afterward.
Among the latest phishing attacks are emails that appear to come from the Internal Revenue Service, trying to trick you into revealing the bank you do business with. The criminals then send an email that appears to come from that bank, asking you to log onto the bank’s Web site. But the Web site you’re directed to only looks like your bank’s. It’s actually a bogus site put up by the criminals to get your account data so they can log onto your bank’s real site and clean you out.
People still get suckered into these phishing scams, with the Anti-Phishing Working Group (www.antiphishing.org) receiving an average of about 25,000 reports of such attacks each month. You may think of cybercriminals as operating abroad, away from the reaches of American law enforcement, and many do. But the country hosting the greatest number of phishing Web sites is the United States, according to the group. The average time that these sites stay up is about four days—long enough to do their dirty work.
Phishing originated back in the mid-1990s with teenage tricksters enticing naïve users into revealing their passwords to “verify your account” or “confirm billing information.” It later evolved into a more nefarious mode, involving credit cards and other financial information, but with the same kinds of pitches being used. By 2004 it was a full-scale crisis. It still is.
Among the other techniques used by phishers are addressing victims using their real names, sending email that appears to come from a trusted friend or co-worker, using a Web address for the phishing site that’s very close to that of the real site, featuring images at the phishing site that were stolen from the real site, using links at the phishing site that connect to the real site, and employing scripts at the phishing site that place a picture of the real Web address over the address bar.
Tactics for Protecting Yourself
Protecting yourself against phishing isn’t difficult, and new software provides extra protection.
? Never click on a link in an email message asking you to verify any personal or financial information via the Web. No legitimate company or government agency should ask you to do this. If you think a request may be legitimate, phone the company allegedly making it and ask if such an email went out.
? Be careful, though, of emails asking you to phone your bank or credit card company to verify information. The phone numbers in them may be bogus, directing you to the criminals, who will then try to steal your information. Look up the phone number yourself.
? Be wary of any links in email messages. Verify that the Web address that the link will take you to is the same address it indicates. Phishers often use the correct Web address as the name of the link but code the link to take you to the bogus address. Be especially wary of Web addresses that include the @ symbol or email messages that ask you to click on an image.
? Be careful when typing Web addresses into your browser so a typo doesn’t land you at a phishing site by mistake. Using a bookmark or favorite link will prevent this.
? Use the latest versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera, which all have antiphishing features. Make sure you enable these features and keep the software up to date.
? Protect yourself with an Internet security suite such as Norton 360, McAfee Total Protection, or the security software provided by your Internet service provider. Make sure you keep this software up to date as well.
? Be careful about social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook as well as the increasing number of business and professional social network sites that are popping up. Scammers troll these waters looking for innocents to bait, tricking them into revealing financial information, Social Security numbers, mother’s maiden names, and so on.
You may be savvy enough to avoid the above mistakes. Make sure co-workers, family members, and friends are as well.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.