Phishing & Identity Theft
Phishing — Obtaining Information by Deceit
Phishing is a relatively-new form of spam that takes advantage of both vulnerabilities in some browsers and email programs combined with people's ignorance of how the Web works to perpetrate identity theft.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
The purpose of phishing is to obtain financial and personal information by deceit. The intent is to steal your on-line identity — commonly referred to as identity theft.
There are huge personal and financial costs if you allow yourself to become a victim — $37 billion in 2010, (down from $56 billion the year before).
- See ZoneAlarm's blog: Your ID Price Tag: The cost of a stolen identity and what to do if it's been compromised.
Identity Theft is a Long-Term Problem
If you are the victim of identity theft, you can expect to fight to regain your credit rating for years — over and over again.
Victims report that it takes months or years to regain their credit rating, only to find that a new report forces them to start all over again.
While electronic data can quickly get you into trouble, financial institutions want physical (on paper) evidence that you're not responsible.
How Phishing Works
Beware of "Computer Support" Calls
Have you received a phone call from someone saying that you have a problem with your computer? Unless you initiate the call, you have no idea who you're dealing with (even call display can be faked). Learn how to avoid Identity Theft.
Going on a Phishing Expedition
Becoming a victim is easier than you might think. Let's have a look at the process from the perpetrator's point of view.
Remember, YOU are the intended victim of this trap.
Step One: Create a Fake Website
The first step is to set up a look-alike site that closely resembles a site that your victims are already using or could be using. The company's logo and other trademarked images are used to convey authenticity. (See the section on abusing transfer of trust.)
This could be a bank (most have been targeted), e-Bay, PayPal or any site where you conduct business using a credit card or enter with a user name and password.
Step Two: Send Out an Email
Next, an email message (see the sample on the right) is sent to thousands of potential victims (like you) indicating that there is a problem with their account, or that their account will be closed unless they go to the website and re-enter personal information, including their user name and password (or bank PIN).
However, this message is not from who you think. The sample show above to the right is a real message sent to Islandet.com customers. (Islandnet.com, like most legitimate businesses, will never ask for this information.) See part of the headers from this example message (the blurring is intentional). The message obviously didn't come from "Islandnet.com" as was indicated in the message.
Don't be hooked. Click on the image to the left to see The Anatomy of an Email Scam on the ZoneAlarm Blog to learn how to recognize an email scam.
HTML Email Hides Details
One of the dangers of "enhanced" or HTML email is that stuff can be hidden and you have to know how to look for it.
Firefox online security features help you avoid problems with invalid or insecure sites.
Step Three: Collect the Information
The victim (you) clicks on the link and finds themselves on what they believe to be the correct site (remember, the perpetrator has created the site to look like the original), so they enter their user name or email address and password.
Of course, this information is not going where you think it is — you're sending it directly to thieves.
Step Four: Assume Your Identity
Taking your electronic identity (which you've just provided to them on the phishing site), the thieves go to the real site (such as your bank) and log into your account.
The information obtained in this manner is then used to either obtain funds from your account or to set up credit in your name.
Another Sort of Phishing Email
The example above is designed to lure you into providing account information and/or to visit a bogus website where you'll enter that information.
Scam with a Different Purpose
A message can also be designed to get you to send money via Western Union or some other method.
The following is the text of a message I received from a friend (with some identity information removed):
URGENT HELP NEEDED.......([my friend's first and last name])
I'm so sorry to bother you,but i really need your help at the moment, I came down here to Manila Philippines for a short vacation,unfortunately i got mugged at the park of the hotel i'm staying ,everything i had on me was stolen including,cash,credit cards and cell phone....I need help to settle the bills and flying back home, I'll surely pay back as soon as I get back home.The amount needed now is just $2,500 .. I'll surely pay back as soon as i get back home. I'm so confused right now and also want to let you know I was beaten up while trying to protect myself and had some scratches on me but his doing well now,You can have the money wire to my name and the address below via western union;
Receiver's Name: [my friend's first and last name]
Location: Manila, Philippines
Get back to me with the details, would definitely refund it back to you once i arrive Hopefully.
Am freaked out at the moment..... I need your Help
The sender hoped I'd reply with financial details so they could collect the funds themselves.
How I Knew It Was a Scam
The message appeared to come from this person's current email address, but there are several evident clues that this wasn't legitimate:
- The use of ALL CAPS in the subject line usually indicates a scam.
- The inconsistent or incorrect use of capitalization and punctuation indicates that English is not the sender's native language or they have poor grammar skills (the person they were impersonating is a professional writer and editor).
- The message was sent from the IP address 22.214.171.124 (found in the headers) which is in Ebene, Africa. (Remember, this person is supposed to be broke and in the Philippines.)
- The person only has “some scratches” (yet supposedly they were “beaten up”).
- The message was sent to an email address that they'd be unlikely to use when corresponding to me in such a circumstance.
- A call to the credit card company would deal with this situation (and the hotel would have obtained a copy of a guest's credit card when the reservation was made or when the person checked in).
The real owner of the address did the smart thing and sent out a message to friends indicating that the original message was bogus and that they were OK. I'm sure the account password was also changed to something more secure.
How to Tell Fake Links
Your Ignorance is Your Downfall
One of the weaknesses that allow phishing and other identity theft practices to succeed is that most of the victims are using technology they don't understand.
- They use passwords that are easily guessed and often repeated everywhere.
- They use outdated and vulnerable software like Outlook Express and Internet Explorer 6 rather than learning to use newer software with built-in safeguards.
- They are unwilling to learn about the risks or change their habits to reduce those risks.
Configuring Your Software to Protect You
Whatever choices you make with your software, you'll want to take advantage of some advanced (and often hidden) features:
- Enable the status bar on your browser and other software. (Click the view menu and look under toolbars).
- Use stronger passwords. There are online complex password generators as well as software to help remember more complex passwords.
- Learn how to view the headers in an email message, and the signs of a risky message.
- Ensure your antivirus, firewall and other security software (sometimes combined into one product) is current and updated.
- Windows users should ensure that all critical Windows Updates (or Microsoft Updates) are installed, including the latest service pack.
- Ensure your browser and email software are current and updated.
Advanced features are often hidden to provide for a cleaner, simpler look. Remember, software vendors don't have to pay to clean up problems that could have been prevented were these features enabled in a standard (default) installation.
If you need help determining how to configure your software and security protection, contact someone knowledgeable. Remember, you're putting your trust in this person, so be careful when selecting your "expert" helper. I provide these services in Greater Victoria.
Get Help From Your ISP
Use whatever tools your ISP makes available to identify potential spam, phishing and other problematic email messages. Check your ISP's help or support website or call their help line.
I strongly recommend Islandnet.com (even if you're using another ISP) because of their extensive PEP anti-spam tools and friendly, knowledgeable staff.
Where Does That Link Go?
Links Have Two Components
Hyperlinks on a website (and in an email) have at least two components:
- The hidden encoded address (the hyperlink where you are being sent); and
- The "linked" text (what you see highlighted in the link).
Only the hyperlink itself (the hidden part) determines where clicking on the link sends you. Just as placing a Mercedes license holder doesn't make your Ford into a Mercedes, a misleading link description doesn't change its destination.
Using the Status Bar
Remember I told you that the status bar was a valuable tool? If you hover over the link in a website or email message and look at the status bar at the bottom of the message, you'll see where the hyperlink is actually sending you.
Not All Links are What they Appear to Be
Take a look at the following link and then see where it leads you (a new window opens):
If you hover over the link and look in the status bar you can tell without visiting the link's destination (strongly recommended when dealing with unknown sites and emails).
Just because the linked text says it is pointing towards "www.mybank.com" doesn't mean that is the real destination.
Learning More of the Mechanics
If you are interested in the mechanics of this process, have a look at Cut 'N Paste HTML Editing. It explains simple HTML and demonstrates how an HTML link works.
It is common for phishing emails to use shortened URLs created by services like tinyurl, bitly and snipurl hide the destination address, but you can check these links before visiting the site. Paste the address into your browser's address bar with the changes noted below, then hit enter:
- tinyurl: add preview before the address (http://preview.tinyurl.com/c7b7ybm).
- bitly: add a + after the address (http://bit.ly/16M0Io3+).
- snipurl add peek before the address. (http://peek.snipurl.com/26ntwhe).
You're taken to tinyurl, bitly or snipurl (respectively) with information showing about the true (full) destination for the shortened link. In these examples, all shortened links point back to this page.
How Can a Fake Site Exist?
First of all, people that set these up and send out the phishing emails wish to remain anonymous. They are breaking the law and don't want you to be able to find them after they steal your identity.
The provided links are only up for a short time before they are removed by the financial institutions affected or by the legal authorities.
Forged links often point to a site in an educational institution where passwords and access are easy to come by. By their very nature, universities house a lot of smart and curious people. Smart as they are, too many don't view the issue of security as their problem. Because of a few people's lax attitudes, many will suffer significant financial setbacks.
Delete Attached Forms
More recent phishing attempts have provided an attachment to their messages which, when opened, replace the fake site with a form which accomplishes the same nefarious purpose — to get your information using deception. Don't be fooled.
Abusing Transfer of Trust
The successful phishing scheme depends upon your trust for your financial institution (or other authority) being carried into the fraudulent email and the website link it contains. You trust the link because it appears to be someone you trust.
The Internet Can Be Exploited
Browsers and enhanced (HTML) email messages can be exploited for this purpose. Unless you understand the language (markup code) you are unlikely to detect this deceitful practice.
Preventing Successful Phishing
There are a number of things that you can use to avoid being the victim of this type of attack:
- Be wary of any threats to close your account or emailed requests to re-submit billing and other personal information. Such requests for account information or passwords are never legitimate.
- Be wary when using public computers. Your passwords, accounts and personal information can be retained by the browser's cache for later retrieval by anyone with access to that computer.
- Do not use open or untrusted secured wireless networks. Someone can be "listening in" on the transaction and obtain your user ID and password.
- Do not trust information emailed to you or obtained on an unknown site. Always use a familiar telephone number or website address to contact your financial institution.
Report Identity Theft
If you have been a victim of identity theft (or suspect you have), contact the police and file an identity theft report.
Use a Safer Browser
Your Choice Matters
Your choice of web browser can make a difference in your ability to protect yourself online. Whichever browser you choose, the most recent will usually have improved security features and/or have known security issues patched.
Internet Explorer is not recommended for most routine surfing and browsing sites on the Web. While Internet Explorer may be convenient, it is tightly integrated into Windows and any security issue in any Microsoft product puts your computer at risk.
Firefox is a much safer browser to use. As an independent program it is less vulnerable to cross-program security issues while still able to perform the intended functions and call to outside features like email programs.
Have a look at some of the built-in security features of Firefox:
- Firefox online security showcases the security features contained in recent Firefox versions.
- Firefox gets a fresh update of forgery sites a whopping 48 times a day!
- Firefox advanced security features include Instant Web Site ID, Content Security Policy, Parental Controls, Private Browsing, Do Not Track and Forget This Site.
- Choosing a web browser: Security — why choosing the right browser matters. Although somewhat dated, the information is still useful.
Firefox works to protect your privacy, provide more secure browsing, ensure that plugins are updated and more. Hundreds of addons and customizations allow you to create the browsing experience you want and need without compromising your safety or security.
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft, in a nutshell, is the obtaining of information about you that will enable someone else to impersonate "you" — allowing them to steal in your name.
Identity theft is, unfortunately, a rapidly growing crime.
It Used to Be Harder
Obtaining personal information is much easier than it used to be.
At one time you had to go to your bank, speak to a real person who would then compare your signature with a physical sample stored at the bank to ensure that you were who you said you were before releasing funds or a providing new credit card.
Today, Information is Too Easily Accessed
These days credit card applications appear unsolicited in your mailbox and are easily available online. Verification depends upon electronic data rather than hard copies (original documents in the teller's hand). Convenience of inter-branch banking and online transactions has led to poorer security.
Passwords — Your Electronic Signature
Many people using this technology don't really understand it.
They worry that they'll forget a password, so they make it simple and use the same one over and over again. Your bank PIN is only four numbers (not very many permutations are possible, so it is relatively easy to guess). Learn more about using effective passwords.
Lack of Knowledge is Your Undoing
Folks don't really understand the risks of using an obsolete email program like Outlook Express (targeted by spammers and phishers because it is still frequently used even though it doesn't contain sufficient protection for the user).
These programs are the electronic equivalent of a skeleton key and are both "easy to use" and ineffective in providing protection.
Just as seat belts, car alarms and ignition keys are inconvenient, Internet security is too. But they also share the provision of protection otherwise unavailable.
Treat Computer Security Like You Would Your Car's Security
You probably wouldn't leave your car unlocked while unattended on a late Friday night in a crime-ridden area of town with the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down. And if you were foolish enough to do so, you shouldn't be surprised to find it gone when you returned.
Have the same respect for the protection of your computer, especially when in the bad area of town (the Internet) where anonymity provides opportunities to take advantage of your ignorance.
Protect Your Identity
Everyone is Gathering Information
Everyone is collecting information about you. They want all the tools at their disposal to get you to buy their products and services. If they can get your email address, they can send their advertising right to your inbox. If they know your marital status and how many children you have they can identify potential markets.
See how to opt out of being placed in these lists and well as how to get off these lists if you didn't ask to be put on them in the first place.
Beware of Phone Callers
Do not converse or do business with companies phoning you.
- Call display can be faked. Unless you initiate the call (and obtain the number from a reliable source), you have no idea who you're dealing with.
- Someone phoning to report a problem with your computer is scamming you. Visiting a website or installing the software on the instructions of such a caller is inviting disaster.
- Do not give out personal information or even confirm or correct what you are told by the caller.
- Do not provide credit details or a credit card. To do so is to invite identity theft.
If YOU contact your credit card company to request information, they will ask you for your credit card number and may ask other personal information to verify your identity. This is normal — they need to verify that they are speaking to someone authorized to obtain information about your credit or to make changes.
However, if you didn't initiate the call, the caller has no right to expect you to provide such information.
Don't Give Away Unnecessary Information
Do not release the following personal information, since it is your identity when you conduct business on-line:
- Social Insurance/Social Security Number (only legislated uses require you to disclose your S.I.N.).
- Mother's maiden name.
- Where you were born.
- Your birth year.
- Bank PINs.
- Passwords (especially when combined with user names).
Be careful about releasing billing addresses and employment information as well. While the successful completion of many credit card transactions requires that the shipping address match the credit card's billing address, this information is not necessary for other transactions.
"Innocent" Information Dangerous
Take Care When Posting on Social Media Sites
People sometimes post things on Facebook or other social media (as well as mention over the phone) without thinking about the consequences.
Watch that you don't reveal the sort of information that allows you to recover a lost password as this is usually something you should remember, but strangers wouldn't, (unless you post it on Facebook):
- Family genealogy.
- Former residences and occupational information.
- Marriage dates and locations.
- Favourite sports teams, etc. (you should probably not used these as security identifiers as they are popular items of conversation).
Being "In the Cloud" Has Risks
Cloud computing (“in the cloud”) is becoming more important as we go more mobile with our computing using smart phones, tablets and other portable devices to conduct business on the go.
While it may free you to access your information anywhere at any time, it also provides the same access to anyone on the Internet (and to the employees of the company providing the service). Hacking of these networks have become very common:
- Winkler: The Real Problems With Cloud Computing — companies are protecting servers, not their user's information.
- Twitter hack spurs cloud computing security debate.
- Sony hacking may hit cloud computing hard.
- PCWorld: Cloud Computing Used to Hack Wireless Passwords.
Reporting Identity Theft
If you suspect you've been the victim of identity theft, the sooner you act, the sooner you can begin to resolve the issue.
You should file a report with the police and with credit reporting agencies:
Reporting identity theft or fraudulent transactions on your credit card(s) to the credit reporting agencies helps to prevent further abuse, particularly if someone tries to open credit in your name. You are entitled to one free credit report each year which discloses who has made requests for your credit report as well as allowing you to dispute errors.
Remember, it will likely be harder to prove identity theft than to execute it, hence the long warnings on this page.
Watch for Unauthorized Purchases
If you do receive bills for unauthorized credit cards or are billed for goods or services you did not receive (particularly from a foreign country) you may have to file a report with your financial institution(s) and to the police.
- Identity Theft: Could it Happen to You?
- Identity Theft Statement (PDF–316KB) for filing an identity theft report.
Other Phishing & Identity Theft Resources
More About Phishing
More information about identity theft and how to prevent it is found on these sites:
- Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre — also known as PhoneBusters.com.
- Identity Theft Resource Center.
- Privacy & Identity is advice from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
More About Phishing
The following sites deal more with the issue of phishing.
- Anti-Phishing Working Group on preventing phishing fraud.
- Securities-Fraud.org on preventing phishing fraud.
- Citibank Phishing Email is an example of how phishing works.
- Secunia Research has vulnerability management tools for consumers and corporations.
More About Related Issues
Protecting Your Online Identity
The following related pages offer more information about protecting your online identity:
- Encryption — Protecting Your Data
- Passwords — Protecting Your Electronic Signature
- Avoiding Spam — Unsolicited Emails and Mailing Lists
- Proper Email Address Etiquette — Using To:, CC: & BCC: Correctly
Securing Your Computer
The following related pages offer more information about securing your computer:
- Security Basics — Preventing Unauthorized Access
- Security Strategies — Avoiding Infections
- Firewalls — Your First Line of Defense
- ZoneAlarm Security — Recommended Firewall Products
- Anti-Virus Protection — Current Alerts, Strategies, Hoaxes & Software
- Your Privacy At Risk — Spyware Detection & Removal
- Encryption — Protecting Your Data
- Passwords — Protecting Your Electronic Signature
- Web Security — Vulnerabilities in Internet Software
- Windows Security — Vulnerabilities in Windows
Updated: June 17, 2013