Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Phishing: Email Scams

Phishing Emails | Spear Phishing | How Phishing Works
Fake Links | Anti-Phishing Tools | More About Phishing

Phishing emails are an attempt to steal your identity.

The information on this page was written with computers in mind, but most of the warnings also apply to mobile devices (smart phones and tablets).

Identity theft information is contained on three pages:

Phishing: Obtaining Information by Deceit

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

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.
  • 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.

Phone and email scams have a lot in common.

The magic sauce, as it were, is in the way phishing attacks are branded. Attackers are doing their homework by researching targets on social media, message boards, media reports, and other online sources to find hyperspecific ways to manipulate human nature and emotions. They use people's fears, their sense of urgency or curiosity, or their need for reward, validation, or an entertaining distraction. — Menlo Security

Report Identity Theft

If you have been a victim of identity theft (or suspect you have), contact the police to report identity theft.

Don't let embarrassment keep you from talking to the authorities. If you were the only victim, identity theft would not be a growing problem.

The sooner you report the potential identity theft, the sooner you can begin to resolve the issue.

Email Scams

A staggering 91% of cybercrime starts with email, according to a 2018 report by security firm FireEye. — CSO

Fraudulent emails are called phishing (pronounced “fishing”) emails. When the email is personalized to target an individual using specific accurate information, it is called spear phishing.

Stop and Think Before Acting

The phishing email is designed to get you to act impulsively, without thinking. Remember to STOP and think before you click or connect.

How to protect against scam emails — Acronis
  • Do not panic. Do not get scared by the crooks. They do not know you, nor do they have access to your computer. It is a classic scare technique. Try to ignore it, even if it sounds disturbing.
  • Do not pay. Once you've paid money, you will not get it back. Instead, you might be attacked more frequently since you've shown the attacker that you are a profitable target.
  • Use strong passwords. Use unique strong passwords for different services. If possible, enable multi-factor authentication in order to increase security. A password manager can help you remember all these different passwords.
  • Awareness-training programs. As an organization, you should implement an awareness-training program for your employees. Also, make sure that your employees know how to report such scam emails to your IT department.
  • Update all relevant systems. Ensure that all your systems are up-to-date and that you are using a comprehensive security solution that can automatically protect you from the newest cyberattacks.

Ignorance is Your Downfall

Your ignorance is your downfall. Learn the signs you're being scammed:

Don't Get Hooked: How to recognize and avoid phishing attacks
Don't Get Hooked: How to recognize and avoid phishing attacks

“Your Computer Hacked”

A relatively recent form of phishing attack is a blackmail email claiming to have hacked your computer demanding payment (in bitcoins, of course) to keep your secrets.

Here's some of the text from an example:

I have bad news for you. I hacked into your operating system and obtained full access to your account [your email address]. After that, I made a full backup of your disk (I have all your address book, view site history, all files, phone numbers and addresses of all your contacts).

I took a screenshot of the intimate website where you are satisfied (Do you understand what I mean?). After that, I made a video of your pleasure (using the camera of your device). It turned out beautiful! I firmly believe that you would not want to show these photos to your parents, friends or colleagues. I think 300 € is a very small sum for my silence.

P.S. I guarantee that I will not disturb you after the payment because you are not my only victim. It's a code of honor for hackers.

Often they'll include a password obtained from a security breach (hopefully,you changed all your passwords afterwards).

Unfortunately, in the modern age, data breaches are common and massive sets of passwords make their way to the criminal corners of the Internet. Scammers likely obtained such a list for the express purpose of including a kernel of truth in an otherwise boilerplate mass email. — EFF

If you have decent up-to-date computer security software, have changed the default passwords on your router and use good password hygiene it is highly unlikely that you've been hacked.

If the language is quite generic and without details, I suggest you ignore the threats. However, you should do a security audit to ensure your system is secure rather than paying a scam artist.

Learn more about how to deal with phishing attempts.

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Spear Phishing

“Spear” phishing is harder to detect. It uses information about you they obtained online (details you shared on Facebook or from a breach) but which makes the user appear to be someone you can trust. The email 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.

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

These are some excellent resources on dealing with phishing attempts:

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.

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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

If a site invites you to use your email and password to log into Yahoo!, Gmail, Windows Live, AOL or other email account, DON'T!

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 download 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 included in a legitimate source like a paper invoice or account statement.

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 (which is usually your email address) plus a password. Only your password is unique in this combination.

What Happens When You Click on Fake Links?

When you click on these links and enter the requested login information, you giving thieves access to your real account(s).

They probably will change the password to lock you out of your own accounts.

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. Even the warning would be sent to the hackers.

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 must act quickly 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 and shouldn't over the phone if the business placed the call.

An Example

The following is a message sent to Islandnet.com customers a number of years ago:

Look at this sample phishing email sent to islandnet.com customers

The headers show routing inconsistent with a message from Islandnet:

Partial headers from sample phishing email

How to Read Message Headers

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 many folks use and how easy it is to obtain them.

The Anatomy of an Email Scam

The Anatomy of an Email Scam

Don't get hooked.

See full-size infographic (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. 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.

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.

The URGENT Help Request

A message can also be designed to get you to send money via Western Union or some other method.

This sort of email will seem to come from a friend or family member that needs you to send them money to help them pay their hotel bill and get home because they've suffered some sort of accident or are the victim of a crime.

The sender hopes you reply with financial details so they can collect the funds themselves.

Stop and Examine the Email

Their goal is to get you to respond quickly before you can think too hard about the claims in the message. Beware of these signals:

  • The sender indicates they are out of contact but in dire need.
  • Watch for any attempt to get your user name and password such as a response form embedded in the email message itself. Would the sender be able to generate such a form, even if it were legitimate?
  • Attached files are suspect (most 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 their server).

The details in the email are usually general in nature. Some information may be accurate but the scammer doesn't know you like the real person.

How Did They Manage to Contact You?

Ask yourself how the sender was able to email you when they have no cash, credit cards or cell phone?

  • A genuine victim could have resolved their 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).
  • The airline could re-issue a lost or stolen ticket.
  • Emergency passports can be re-issued by embassies everywhere.

Tighten Passwords

The real owner of the email address needs to let people know they're okay and to change their password to something more secure (and probably change their security habits).

Fake Emails Getting Better

Recent phishing email scams are harder to detect. Scammers are improving their techniques as well as their grammar and they employ spear phishing techniques to make the message more believable.

[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

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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).

Decent security software and detection provided by web browsers like Firefox can help prevent such attacks, but it is best not to click on these links in the first place.

Where Does That Link Go?

Would you click on links 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:

  1. the linked text (what you see highlighted in the link); and
  2. 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.

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 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.

Short URLs

Shortened URLs (web addresses) are common in Tweets (Twitter messages) because only 140 characters doesn't allow for long complex links.

Services like TinyURL and Bitly hide the destination address.

Unmasking Shortened URLs

You can unmask the destination of these links before visiting the site. Paste the address into your browser's address bar with the changes noted below, then hit enter:

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.

Other Link Shorteners

If you're unable to determine the destination, I recommend using Redirect Tracker to check any short or affiliate URL (bit.ly, goo.gl, etc.) to see where it goes.

Phishing Emails

Shortened URLs are seldom needed in an email except where the length of a complex address wraps in the email window, potentially causing the link to break.

Phishing email emails commonly use these to obfuscate the link destination. Emails containing the promise of a financial reward or similar click bait messages should be checked out carefully or ignored if you're unable to verify the destination.

An Example

I received a suspicious email (supposedly from “Costco”) with a shortened link. Redirect Tracker revealed that the unmasked destination address was being redirected twice from the obfuscated address:

The destination of an ow.ly link reveals it is being redirected twice

This is not a good sign, especially since “zharerewards” is an obvious misspelling of sharerewards.

Other Issues

Shortened URLs have security and other issues.

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.

Short-Term Links

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 .DOCX and other Microsoft 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 password manager.
  • Only shop on encrypted websites — prefixed with https:// and a padlock symbol in the address bar. Unencrypted sites are more vulnerable to being hacked.
  • 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 infections are not as common, they are vulnerable.
  • Ensure your browser and email software are current and updated.
  • Stop using and uninstall software that is no longer actively supported or 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 caused by the shortcomings in their products or within optional downloads installed at the same time as their own product.

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, but only in Greater Victoria (located 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.

This site hosted by
Check out 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.

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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.

Your trust in the caller, web page or link is only because it appears to be from someone you know and 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 especially emailed notices. 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 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.
  • Keyloggers can capture private information on any computer.

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.

 

Anti-Phishing Tools

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.

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.

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.

Malicious Microsoft Office attachments are more common than malicious batch scripts and PowerShell scripts. — Tech Republic

Delete Attached Forms

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.

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 .DOCX and other Microsoft Office documents can be dangerous.

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.

Beware of Hidden File Types

Windows hides “known” file extensions by default. While they are known to Windows, many users don't understand the risks they can pose such as which files that can infect your computer.

Several file types (including .EXE, .SCR, .COM and .BAT) are not safe to open, especially when received as an email attachment.

You should change your settings to unhide known file types.

Checking Unknown Files

If you're unsure if a file is safe, you're better off deleting it than checking it out yourself. If you need the file, use one of these resources to check it out before opening it.

  • ZoneAlarm Extreme's Threat Emulation opens unknown files in a virtual sandbox to examine what they do before you risk your computer's security.
  • CSI: ACE Insight allows you to upload suspect files you received as attachments.

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More About Phishing

The following sites deal with phishing.

Recommended Reading

419, fiction by Will Ferguson, looks at the issue of phishing from both the victim and perpetrator points of view. Strongly recommended.

“419” by Will Ferguson
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

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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RussHarvey.bc.ca/resources/phishing.html
Updated: May 28, 2020