Tuesday, April 29, 2008
This post is one of a series devoted to online security. - Ed.
Millions of people have gotten "urgent" emails asking them to take immediate action to prevent some impending disaster. "Our bank has a new security system. Update your information now or you won't be able to access your account," or "We couldn't verify your information; click here to update your account." Sometimes the email claims that something awful will happen to the sender (or a third party), as in "The sum of $30,000,000 is going to go to the Government unless you help me transfer it to your bank account."
People who click on the links in these emails may see a web page that looks like a legitimate site they've visited before. Because the page looks familiar, these people enter their username, password, or other private information on the site. What they've actually done is given an unknown third party all the information needed to hijack their account, steal their money, or open up new lines of credit in their name. They just fell for a phishing attack.
The concept behind such an attack is pretty simple: Someone masquerades as someone else in an effort to fool you into sharing personal or other sensitive information with them. Phishers can masquerade as just about anyone, including banks, email and application providers, online merchants, online payment services, and even governments. And while some of these attacks are crude and easy to spot, many of them are sophisticated and well constructed. That fake email from "your bank" can look very real; the bogus "login page" you're redirected to can seem completely legitimate.
The good news is there are things you can do to steer clear of phishing attacks:
- Be careful about responding to emails that ask you for sensitive information. You should be wary of clicking on links in emails or responding to emails that are asking for things like account numbers, user names and passwords, or other personal information such as social security numbers. Most legitimate businesses will never ask for this information via email. Google doesn't.
- Go to the site yourself, rather than clicking on links in suspicious emails. If you receive a communication asking for sensitive information but think it could be legitimate, open a new browser window and go to the organization's website as you normally would (for instance, by using a bookmark or by typing out the address of the organization's website). This will improve the chances that you're dealing with the organization's website rather than with a phisher's website, and if there's actually something you need to do, there will usually be a notification on the site. Also, if you're not sure about a request you've received, don't be afraid to contact the organization directly to ask. It takes just a few minutes to go to the organization's website, find an email address or phone number for customer support, and reach out to confirm whether the request is legitimate.
- If you're on a site that's asking you to enter sensitive information, check for signs of anything suspicious. If you're on a site that's asking for sensitive information -- no matter how you got there -- check for the signs that it's really the official website for the organization. For example, check the URL to make sure the page is actually part of the organization's website, and not a fraudulent page on a different domain (such as mybankk.com or g00gle.com.) If you're on a page that should be secured (like one asking you to enter in your credit card information) look for "https" at the beginning of the URL and the padlock icon in the browser. (In Firefox and Internet Explorer 6, the padlock appears in the bottom right-hand corner, while in Internet Explorer 7 the padlock appears on the right-hand side of the address bar.) These signs aren't infallible, but they're a good place to start.
- Be wary of the "fabulous offers" and "fantastic prizes" that you'll sometimes come across on the web. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and it could be a phisher trying to steal your information. Whenever you come across an offer online that requires you to share personal or other sensitive information to take advantage of it, be sure to ask lots of questions and check the site asking for your information for signs of anything suspicious.