Phishing & Identity Protection
Never give any personal information, such as a Social Security number, to a caller unless you're positive he or she is a legitimate representative of a company with which you regularly do business. If there's any question, ask for the caller's full name, title and department and tell him or her you'll call back. Use the business's phone number as posted on its website or on any mailed statement or correspondence you've received from the company.
— ZoneAlarm Security Blog
Beware of "Computer Support" Calls
If you receive a phone call from a “technical support” person saying that you have a problem with your computer, just hang up. All such calls are SCAMS.
- Never provide or confirm any personal or computer information (including passwords, software, credit card numbers, etc.).
- Never visit websites or install software suggested by the caller.
- Never provide remote access to your computer.
- Never follow instructions to navigate to folders or type any instructions via your keyboard.
Unless you initiate the call (and have obtained the number from a legitimate source), you have no idea who you're dealing with (call display can be faked). How to protect yourself from scammers (CRTC).
The caller will attempt to “prove” they are legitimate by getting you to visit their website. Don't! They aren't located in your country regardless of what the site says. Most are located in India or similar countries where consumer protection and fraud law cannot stop the operation of these scam artists.
One trick is to open a location on your computer showing “errors”. These errors are NORMAL, but the caller wants you to panic and follow their advice.
Microsoft estimated the cost of cleaning up after a successful scam at $850.00. More on these sites:
- Cold call tech support scams increasingly common.
- ‘We're with Windows’ : The anatomy of a cold-calling scam.
- Avoid tech support phone scams — from Microsoft security.
- Listen to a scam computer virus call.
- 15% received a call (22% of them fell for the con).
- Microsoft takes on scummy tech-support companies has more hints about avoiding getting caught in this massively-profitable racket.
Don't be the next victim! Just hang up.
Unfamiliar messages. Passwords that no longer work. These are just two of the many clues that cybercriminals have gotten a hold of your password and broken into your [email] account.
— ZoneAlarm Security Blog
Obtaining Information by Deceit
Phishing is a form of spam. It takes advantage of vulnerabilities in some browsers and email programs but depends even more upon people's ignorance of how the Web works to perpetrate identity theft.
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.
- Don't take the Bait! is a excellent video about phishing from the Bank of Montreal.
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).
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Phishing involves convincing you that you're seeing information from a legitimate source when you're not.
Phishing emails are designed to look like legitimate messages from actual banks, businesses, and other organizations. In reality, though, criminals created the message, usually in an effort to steal your money, identity, or both. They want you to click links that will take you to a website that looks authentic but is really just there to capture your credit card or other personal information or perhaps to distribute malware.
— ZoneAlarm Security Blog
See ZoneAlarm's blog to learn more:
- 7 Ways to Spot a Phishing Scam.
- Ad Targeting: Trusting merchants, social media, and mobile providers with personal information.
- Email Hacked? Here is what to do.
- Several excellent older posts have been removed, but check the current listings.
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
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.)
The image on the right was captured from a recent fake site but I've seen a similar layout right in an email (one of the reasons you DON'T want to allow your email program to automatically load images).
This could be a bank (most have been targeted), Google Docs, 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 above) 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* is a real message sent to Islandet.com customers. (Islandnet.com, like most legitimate businesses, will never ask for this information, particularly in an email.) See part of the headers* from this example message (the blurring is intentional).
In addition, note the “sender's” address. The message obviously didn't come from islandnet.com. No legitimate ISP would ever use an address hosted on a free service (they maintain a hosting service that competes with these services).
*These links open in a new tab or window in your browser so you can compare them with the text above.
- How to view message headers on various email providers from Google help.
The Anatomy of an Email Scam
Don't get hooked.
Click on the image to the right to see The Anatomy of an Email Scam (posted 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. How to look for it.
Firefox 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 — indicated by the square brackets):
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 was supposedly “beaten up” (yet only has “some scratches”).
- 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 (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
One thing that allows 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 obsolete and vulnerable software 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.
Your ignorance is your downfall.
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 so that you can see hints when your mouse hovers over a link or other hot spots.
- Use stronger passwords. There are complex online 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 (usually combined into one product) is current and updated.
- Windows users should ensure that all critical Windows 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. Be careful when selecting your “expert” helper (especially if they call you). Remember, you're putting your trust in this person. 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. Unlike some major ISPs, you're dealing with a real person that is knowledgable, not someone overseas with a script in front of them.
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 the link sends you.
Just as placing a Mercedes license holder onto your Ford doesn't turn it into a Mercedes, a misleading description doesn't change the link's 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 a simple HTML link works.
It is common for phishing emails to use shortened URLs (web addresses) 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 fake sites up and send out the phishing emails wish to remain anonymous. They are breaking the law and don't want you (or the police) 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 (HTML markup) 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.
- Keyloggers can capture private information on any 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 including any links to sites.
- Do not trust information on an unknown website.
Always use a familiar telephone number or a known website address to contact your financial institution or any site requiring personal information or a password.
Report Identity Theft
If you have been a victim of identity theft (or suspect you have), contact the police to report identity theft.
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 routine surfing and browsing sites on the Web. While IE may be convenient, it is so tightly integrated into Windows that 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 designed to protect your privacy.
- Firefox gets a fresh update of forgery sites a whopping 48 times a day!
Anti-Phishing Tools & Information
These tools and information sites will help you to learn more about phishing and provide you with tools to verify suspect websites and files.
I urge caution when using these tools. Be sure you understand the terminology and understand the risks.
Checking Out Suspicious Websites
Check to see if a site has been flagged for phishing:
- PhishTank is a collaborative clearing house for data and information about phishing on the Internet.
- urlQuery.net is a service for detecting and analyzing web-based malware.
- CSI: ACE Insight allows you to check for malicious sites.
Check the site's information and/or disclaimer pages so you understand the capabilities and shortcomings of the service. The following is from urlQuery's About page but can be applied to most such services:
Currently no service or security solution provide 100% detection of malicious content. The data provided is to help give a second opinion and should not be taken as facts. As with other sandbox technologies it can be detected which can skewed or make the results inaccurate, other issues might include browser incompatibilities or settings/configurations within the browser.
— About urlQuery
Checking Out Suspicious Files
I caution you to be careful when checking out suspect files. In most cases you're safer simply deleting the email along with the unopened suspect file unless you were expecting it from a trusted source.
- Tools for foiling malicious links and files lists a number of sites where you can upload suspect files you received as attachments.
- CSI: ACE Insight allows you to upload suspect files you received as attachments.
More About Phishing
The following sites deal with 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 has vulnerability management tools for consumers and corporations.
419, fiction by Will Ferguson, looks at the issue of phishing from both the victim's and perpetrators views. Strongly recommended.
419 takes readers behind the scene of the world's most insidious internet scam. When Laura's father gets caught up in one such swindle and pays with his life, she is forced to leave the comfort of North America to make a journey deep into the dangerous back streets and alleyways of the Lagos underworld to confront her father's killer. What she finds there will change her life forever…
Updated: July 21, 2015