Phishing & Identity Protection
The information on this page was written with computers in mind, but most of the warnings also apply to mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.
How much do you know about cybersecurity?
Take the cybersecurity knowledge test to see how much you understand about online security and the terminology involved.
Once you've evaluated how well you understand the issue, read the information on this page to help you understand Cyber scams and how to prevent yourself from becoming a victim.
Much like white-collar criminals, online criminals face far lighter repercussions if they are caught than someone physically robbing a store or bank or someone holding a person for ransom because it is assumed that such crime is not as serious. Cybervictims would disagree.
As cybercrime begins to overtake physical offenses for the first time, we need to realize that as our world continues to be dominated by technology so is organized crime. There is a common misconception that these out of sight online attacks are victimless crimes or are not treated with the same level of importance as those that occur offline, and this needs to change. — Daniel Burrus
From bogus “computer support” calls to “free” vacations to fake charities to unexpected “government” calls (even threats of pending arrest warrants) scams are perpetrated on innocent victims every day.
Globally, about two-thirds of the respondents had encountered a technical support scam. About one in five had been duped -- allowed the scammer to continue his or her story -- and nearly one in 10 had actually given money to the fraudster. — ComputerWorld
Any of these warning signs should you that you're probably dealing with a bogus caller:
- A robo-call telling you that you've been randomly selected for a special discount, offering credit card debt relief or to win a prize is almost certainly a scam.
- You get a call from an “officer” telling you that you're about to be arrested for tax fraud (of course he can help).
- Scammers say they are from or are associated with a well-known company or government agency (e.g. Microsoft, IRS or CRA). This is transfer of trust.
- They ask to confirm your account number or other details.
- They ask for remote access to your computer or want you to install software.
Remember, they called you! so it's their identity that is unconfirmed. Providing information or access to your computer allows the caller to scam you. Just hang up.
Microsoft's tips to stay safe online and avoid falling victim to scams:
- Be wary of any unsolicited phone call or pop-up message on your device.
- Microsoft will never proactively reach out to you to provide unsolicited PC or technical support. Any communication we have with you must be initiated by you.
- Do not call the number in a pop-up window on your device. Microsoft's error and warning messages never include a phone number.
- Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer.
- If skeptical, take the person's information down and immediately report it to your local authorities.
Don't be the next victim! Just hang up.
These Callers are Thieves
The purpose of their call is to steal from you — your money, your identity, your trust. Learn how to protect your identity.
When someone approaches you, remember they always want something. — Frank Catalano
Caller ID Can be Faked
The telephone Caller ID display can be faked. The number showing is no guarantee that the caller is who they say they are.
Unless you initiate the call AND have obtained the number from a legitimate source, you have no certainty who you're dealing with.
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
Never depend upon any website provided by the caller. Ensure you use the site indicated on reliable sources such as a recent invoice or billing from the company. Fake websites are common and it is easy to fake a site.
Beware of "Computer Support" Calls
While this section deals specifically with computers, similar motives and techniques are used in other scams including offers to lower your credit card rate and threats of arrest from CRA “security officers.”
I'm calling from Microsoft…
No, they aren't.
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.
Telephone scams return around $470 per call. Thanks to robocalling (automated calling), number finding technology, and fake caller IDs, scammers fool more people than ever before. Given how much money the scam makes, and how little call centers pay (e.g., Indian call centers pay around $2 an hour), your decision to "keep them on the line" really isn't helping anyone. — MakeUseOf
If you have reason to believe the call is legitimate, hang up then look up the number from legitimate source such as an invoice or statement and call them back. In most cases, the company won't know what you're talking about.
The person calling you is undoubtedly more technically adept than most users. They will attempt to convince you that your computer needs fixing, then obtain your credit card to bill you for an unnecessary support call.
All computers run slower over time. The caller will most likely make the problem worse (they are attempting to steal your identity and/or the use of your computer to attack other computers) as well as sell you bogus anti-virus software or services.
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 their website indicates. Most (but not all) are located in India or similar countries where consumer protection and fraud law are not easily prosecuted.
One trick is to have the victim click on the Windows Key + R keyboard combination to bring up the Run command, then have them type in “msconfig” (they'll spell it out) to open System Configuration and click on the services tab:
They scammer will then point out the stopped Microsoft services, calling them “errors” and telling them that their computer is about to crash.
These errors are NORMAL, but the caller wants you to panic and follow their advice. Most users are confused by the use of the keyboard commands and immediately feel out of their depth. This is intentional.
Now they'll get you to enter the same Windows Key + R keyboard combination, then www.google.com (which opens Google) and have you search for an older (insecure) version of TeamViewer.
When installed, this program will provide the caller with remote access to your computer without any of the newest security measures.
Remember, the caller has no advance information about your computer. All they have is their bag of tricks to try to scam you.
- Never provide remote access to your computer via TeamViewer or any other product based upon a phone call, email or any unexpected popup warning on your computer.
- Never follow instructions to navigate to folders or type any instructions via your keyboard.
- Never provide nor confirm any personal or computer information (including passwords, software versions or serial numbers, credit card numbers, etc.).
- Never visit websites or install software suggested by the caller.
Remote access or unknown software can allow the remote user to do ANYTHING on your computer, including install nefarious software or steal personal information.
If you follow their advice, you'll waste your money on software that won't help protect your computer. Worse, it will likely make your computer more vulnerable and you'll become a victim of identity theft and credit card abuse for which you'll foot the bill.
Don't be a victim! Just hang up.
Cleanup is Costly
Many people of all ages have fallen for these scams, and the schemes are getting more complex. If you encounter one, don't panic. Stop and think it through.
Microsoft estimated the cost of cleaning up after a successful scam at $875.00 (and that was in 2011). More on these sites:
- 7 steps to take right after a data breach.
- Stay Safe Online's blog has tips and news about keeping your computer and family safe online.
- Tech support scams — from Microsoft.
- Cold call tech support scams increasingly common.
- How to protect yourself from scammers (CRTC).
- ‘We're with Windows.’ The anatomy of a cold-calling scam.
- Avoiding tech support scams — from Microsoft.
- Listen to a scam computer virus call.
- 15% received a call (22% of those 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.
If You've Become a Victim
If you become a victim, it will probably take you hundreds of hours and an average of $1,000 to recover from ID theft. Even worse, some innocent victims have ended up in prison because identity thieves have committed crimes in their names. — Scambusters
If you've fallen for one of these scams, don't be embarrassed. If you were the only victim, the crooks would be out of business.
Report the Crime
However, you do need to take some immediate measures to limit the damage, starting with reporting the crime.
Have Your Computer Checked
If your computer was accessed, take your computer to a trusted computer professional to assess the damage. Service personnel can look for the signs of problems but no one can guarantee the computer is clean under these circumstances.
In some cases the computer many need to have a clean install (data backed up, operating system and software reinstalled, data restored) to ensure the computer is not infected.
Change Your Passwords
Your passwords may be compromised. Notify the companies involved and immediately change ALL your passwords.
Notify Financial Institutions and Police
If you used a credit card or provided banking details, you'll need to immediately notify those financial institutions.
Notify the police to report the potential identity theft and contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501 if you have become the victim of identity theft.
Check That Number!
Do NOT use any number provided in a suspicious email or phone call. Instead, look up the number in a statement or invoice you've received from the company or organization when doing business with them in the past.
What About Unknown Numbers
There are resources that let you check out a phone number. These services depend upon reports from people like you that may have fallen victim to the scam or are simply concerned that it may be a scam.
- 800notes is a free reverse phone number lookup database built by its users.
- CallerSmart is a free service (or app) that allows you to find out who called or texted you.
You don't know if the number showing on your call display is accurate. (Would you allow your real number to display if you were about to con someone?)
In many cases the scammer will fake a local or domestic number until it becomes too hot to use, then they'll switch to another. Using Internet-based phone calling, it is easy to fake any number, usually a number that appears to be local because you're more likely to answer a call from “a neighbour.”
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 account. — ZoneAlarm Security Blog
Obtaining Information by Deceit
Phishing is a form of spam intended to obtain financial and personal information by deceit.
- It takes advantage of vulnerabilities in some browsers and email programs but depends even more upon people's ignorance.
- The intent is to steal your on-line identity — a crime commonly referred to as identity theft (see the sidebar).
- The information gained will be used to gain unauthorized access to your existing accounts or to establish new ones. Crimes may be committed in your name and your reputation may be destroyed.
[E]mail isn't the only vector for phishing attacks: Several U.S. state and local government agencies have reported receiving strange letters via snail mail that include malware-laden compact discs (CDs) apparently sent from China. — KrebsOnSecurity
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).
One reason phishing and other identity theft practices to succeed is that most of the victims are using technology they don't understand. Unfortunately, neither do the politicians making the rules to protect you.
- Victims use passwords that are easily guessed and often repeated everywhere. The passwords may have been compromised in a data breach (that's why you change passwords when you're notified of a breach.)
- They don't use a password manager. Instead, they use the same set of passwords or slight variations everywhere.
- Rather than learning to use newer software with built-in safeguards, they run obsolete email programs and vulnerable web browsers with obsolete or insecure addons and vulnerable plugins.
- They are unwilling to learn about risky behaviour or change their habits to reduce those risks.
Ignorance is Your Downfall
Your ignorance is your downfall. Learn the signs you're being scammed:
“Spear” phishing is harder to detect. It uses information about you obtained online but which makes the user appear to be someone you can trust. It may appear to come from a friend, but it is a scammer looking to steal from you.
The spear phisher thrives on familiarity. He knows your name, your email address, and at least a little about you. The salutation on the email message is likely to be personalized: "Hi Bob" instead of "Dear Sir." The email may make reference to a "mutual friend." Or to a recent online purchase you've made. Because the email seems to come from someone you know, you may be less vigilant and give them the information they ask for. And when it's a company you know asking for urgent action, you may be tempted to act before thinking.
- Don't take the bait! is a excellent video about phishing from the Bank of Montreal (requires Adobe Flash Player, a vulnerable plugin).
- Spear phishing: scam, not sport.
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
ZoneAlarm's blog has some excellent resources:
- Sextortion scam: What to do if you get the latest phishing spam demanding Bitcoin.
- 6 tips to avoid phishing attacks.
- 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.
I use AntispamSniper, an excellent third-party antispam tool, with The Bat!. They have some excellent suggestions on identifying and avoiding phishing attacks.
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.)
Proprietary Images Can be Hijacked
The “Google Docs” image (shown beside this text) was captured from a fake website.
I've seen a similar layout embedded into an email (one of the reasons you DON'T want to allow your email program to automatically load images).
Don't follow a website (or email) link to log into Yahoo!, Gmail, Windows Live, AOL or other email account. The email may simply use fake links to take you to their bogus site. Always use an address sourced from a legitimate location.
The message could exploit a bank (most have been targeted), Google Docs, e-Bay, PayPal or any site where you conduct business using a credit card or is protected with a user name (usually your email address) and a password.
What Happens When You Click on Fake Links?
When you click on these links and enter the requested login information, you are providing the scammer with the information they need to take over your account (each one you provided the login information for).
They would probably lock you out of your own accounts by changing passwords.
If it is your email account, that account is a key recovery mechanism for your other accounts. The scammer would soon control your social media and other accounts linked to it. All they have to do is click on the “forgot password” link on the various sites then check your email account for the recovery information or links.
Step Two: Send Out an Email
Next, send an email message 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).
Most such messages indicate that you have less than 24 hours or your account will be closed. (They don't want you taking time to think about it or contact the actual company where the account is located, do they?)
Legitimate businesses will never ask for personal or account information via email.
The following is a message sent to Islandet.com customers a number of years ago:
The headers show routing inconsistent with a message from Islandnet:
How to Read Message Headers
- How to view message headers on various email providers from Google help.
Scammers Getting Smarter
You can't count on identifying spam by the email sender's address. Scammers often know how to forge headers to make it appear to come from a legitimate company.
Recently I've noticed that spam with the same message seems to come from a different email address every time (probably the same scammer using stolen addresses).
According to Symantec's 2015 Website Security Threat Report Part I, it costs as little as $0.50 to $10 per 1,000 stolen email addresses on the black market — a testimony as to the poor quality passwords folks use and how easy it is to hack them.
The Anatomy of an Email Scam
Don't get hooked.
HTML Email Hides Details
One of the dangers of "enhanced" or HTML email is that stuff can be hidden. See How to unmask fake links.
Firefox security features help you avoid problems with invalid or insecure sites. Other browsers may have these features, but Firefox is the only major independent browser.
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. I've removed identifiable information and replaced it with the text in the square brackets:
URGENT HELP NEEDED
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 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 126.96.36.199 (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 person had no cash, credit cards or cell phone but was able to send an email to me.
- The message was sent to an email address that the sender would be unlikely to use when corresponding to me in such a circumstance.
The victim could have resolved her issues with a call to the credit card company. The hotel would have obtained a copy of a guest's credit card when the reservation was made (and verified it when the person checked in) and credit card companies provide the necessary help in such circumstances.
Address Owner Reports Bogus Message & Tightens Password
The real owner of the address did the smart thing and sent out a message to her contacts indicating that the original message was bogus and changed her password to something more secure.
Fake Emails Getting Better
Scammers are improving their techniques and their language skills. Grammar is improving and spear phishing techniques. Recent phishing email scams are harder to detect.
[P]hishing messages only seem to be getting savvier and more authentic-looking, fooling even seasoned experts. Gone are the days when obvious misspellings and grammatical errors provide a dead giveaway that shenanigans are at play. — Trustwave Blog
However, they'll still try to get you to respond quickly and without thinking too hard. Beware of these signals:
- The sender indicates they are out of contact but in dire need (like the example above).
- Any attempt to get your user name and password, especially when the form is either attached or embedded in the email message.
- Attachments are generally unnecessary in most messages. They are useful when sending documents, photos, etc. but an unexpected attached .docx or .zip file should probably not be opened (most such attachments contain scripts that will infect your computer).
- Altered or unusual links in the body of the message or its attachments.
- The presence of official looking logos attached to the message (most companies now use images hosted on a server).
Unmasking Fake Links
One of the methods commonly used to scam people are fake links in email messages.
Fake links drive unsuspecting traffic to websites that
- drive traffic to websites that generate revenue for them via pay-per-click ads or similar revenue generators; or
- pretend to be a legitimate site like a bank (in order to steal account information); or
- infect their computers with malware (turning their computer into part of a botnet that attacks legitimate sites or attempts to infect other computers).
Where Does That Link Go?
Would you click on a link like the following?
Of course not. Those looking to steal your identity aren't going to unmask themselves. They tell you the link points to something that engages your curiosity or greed.
That's why you can't trust the linked text to tell you where the links actually go.
Links Have Two Components
Hyperlinks on a website (and in an email) have at least two components:
- the linked text (what you see highlighted in the link); and
- the hyperlink (the actual address where you are being sent).
Only the hyperlink itself (the hidden part) determines where the link sends you.
Just as placing a Mercedes license holder onto a Ford doesn't turn it into a Mercedes, a misleading description doesn't change the link's destination.
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):
Using the Status Bar
If you hover over the link and look in the status bar at the bottom of the program (some browsers show the hyperlink address in a small box above or below the link itself) you can tell the destination without clicking the link (and potentially getting yourself into trouble).
Just because the linked text says it is pointing towards a particular Web address 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 gives some simple HTML lessons and demonstrates how HTML links work.
It is common for phishing emails to use shortened URLs (web addresses) created by services like TinyURL and bitly 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 (https://preview.tinyurl.com/c7b7ybm).
- bitly: add a + after the address (https://bitly.com/16M0Io3+).
You're taken to TinyURL or bitly with information showing about the true (full) destination for the shortened link. In these examples, all shortened links point back to this page.
Shortened links are common in Tweets (Twitter messages) because only 140 characters doesn't allow for long complex Web addresses. However, they are seldom needed in an email except where the length of a complex address wraps, potentially causing the link to break.
- Destination unknown: shortened URLs and your security.
- Short URLs considered harmful for cloud services (or PDF version).
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 owners of the site 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. An unexpected attached form (or PDF or Zip file) is likely an attempt at identity theft. Even .DOC and similar Office documents can be dangerous.
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:
- Ensure that you can see the hints when your mouse hovers over a link or other hot spots on your browser.
- Use stronger passwords. There are complex online password generators as well as software to help remember more complex passwords. I strongly recommend LastPass.
- Only shop on secure websites (https:// and a padlock symbol in a web address means a safer website than http:// because it is encrypted).
- Learn how to view the headers in an email message (sidebar), and know the signs of a risky message (read this page completely as phone and email scams have a lot in common).
- Ensure your security software is current and updated daily.
- Windows users should ensure that all critical Windows Updates are installed, including the latest service pack. Mac and Linux users need to be vigilant in updating. While not as common, they can be infected.
- Ensure your browser and email software are current and updated.
- Stop using and uninstall software that is no longer actively supported and maintained.
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 on the west coast of Canada.
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 hosting with Islandhosting.com.
They specialize in website hosting and can provide personal support when you need it. Their friendly, knowledgeable staff can deal with most email programs and services. Unlike some major ISPs, you're dealing with a real person that is knowledgable, not someone overseas with a script in front of them.
Transfer of Trust
A successful phishing scheme, like any con, depends upon gaining your trust.
They'll use your trust of your financial institution, major vendor (e.g. Microsoft) or other authority (CRA, CRTC, FBI, phone company, etc.). They know that if you believe they are who they say they are, then you'll be more likely to follow their instructions.
You trust the caller, web page or link because it appears to be someone you trust.
The Internet Can Be Exploited
The original Internet was used only by scientists exchanging data. There was no need for high security.
But this has changed. The Web is used for e-commerce, personal transactions and more.
Browsers and enhanced (HTML) email messages can be exploited, particularly if you don't understand the language (HTML markup) and therefore can't protect yourself.
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 such as those at coffee shops and other public 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 trusted sources to obtain the telephone number or website address to contact any site requiring personal information or a password. Google is not necessarily that trusted source, especially if you click on the sponsored links.
Report Identity Theft
If you have been a victim of identity theft (or suspect you have), contact the police to report identity theft.
Use Encrypted HTTPS Sites Where Possible
Choose your web browser for its ability to protect your privacy and security online. More…
I strongly recommend that you only connect to sites that are encrypted. Unsecured sites are not encrypted and are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.
This is particularly important when using online banking or when shopping online — including anywhere that you are sharing banking or credit card details.
Secure sites are indicated by https:// in front of the address and/or some sort of a padlock symbol. The display varies by browser:
- Firefox, Google Chrome and Opera all use a green padlock to the left of the address.
- Chrome includes the word secure.
- Both Firefox and Chrome display the HTTPS:// prefix; Opera does not.
- Safari and Internet Explorer both use a grey padlock symbol.
- Safari displays it to the left of the address but doesn't display the HTTPS:// prefix.
- Internet Explorer displays the padlock on the far right side of the address window but does display the HTTPS:// prefix.
HTTPS:// Everywhere is a Firefox, Chrome, and Opera extension that encrypts your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure.
- Mozilla's HTTPS and your online security looks at the strengths and weakness of HTTPS.
Choose a Safer Browser
Your Browser 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 version will usually have improved security features and/or have known security issues patched.
Firefox is a much safer browser to use.
As an independent stand-alone product it is less vulnerable to cross-program security issues. Because it isn't tied to an operating system or to a search company, it can focus on its users rather than those controlling the purse strings. It can perform all the features needed in a browsers without the downside.
Have a look at some of the built-in security features of Firefox:
- Firefox designed to protect your privacy.
- Firefox's Private Browsing allows you to surf without saving information about the sites and pages you've visited nor are cookies or passwords saved.
- Firefox gets a fresh update of forgery sites a whopping 48 times a day!
Firefox is also updated frequently, so security fixes and new benefits are available sooner.
Internet Explorer is no longer being developed and is not recommended for routine surfing or 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 entire computer at risk.
Google has paid free software vendors to automatically install Chrome as the user's default browsers (few people check for the preselected options when installing this software) and has replaced Internet Explorer as the dominant browser.
Google Chrome has huge privacy risks, especially if you sign into your Google account while surfing (even if it is only for checking your Gmail). Google makes their money by exploiting information you provide and Google NEVER forgets.
Opera browser is a relatively-safe option with some nice safety features like built-in VPN. Like Firefox, it is an independent browser.
More About Browsers
There is more about web browsers and their options on my Browsers & Plugins page including browser downloads.
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.
Beware of suspicious warnings or popups on websites and on your computer.
- You suddenly hear an audio-based warning that your computer has been infected. There doesn't seem to be any solution other than to follow the instructions.
- A website reports that your Windows license key has been corrupted.
- A red box popup up stating that there is a Firefox critical error telling you to call a number.
These are examples of malware designed to trap you into expensive service contracts that are scams. NEVER call the number on the screen.
Microsoft warnings will NEVER include a phone number. Neither will Firefox. If a recovery phone number is displayed, you're seeing a scam.
If you're having difficulty closing a popup, see Popup Warnings that Won't Go Away for solutions.
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 provides 100% detection of malicious content. The data provided is to help give a second opinion and should not be taken as fact. As with other sandbox technologies it can be detected which can skew or make the results inaccurate. Other issues might include browser incompatibilities or settings/configurations within the browser.
Checking Out Suspicious Files
Be cautious when checking out suspicious 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.
If your security program detects a problem with an attachment, you'd best delete it rather than having the program treat it even if it is an essential file sent from a trusted computer.
You're best to discard it rather than risk infecting your own computer by opening the attachment. Instead, print out a copy of the file on the original computer while disconnected from the Internet. The original computer needs to have a full security scan with a current and updated software.
- ZoneAlarm Extreme's Threat Emulation opens unknown files in a virtual sandbox to examine what they do before you risk your computer's security.
- 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.
- Phishing 101: How to protect yourself against online threats.
- Anti-Phishing Working Group on preventing phishing fraud.
- Popular phishing scams and what to do about them.
419, fiction by Will Ferguson, looks at the issue of phishing from both the victim and perpetrator points of view. 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… — GoodReads