Online fraud can come come in a variety of ways; forged emails from financial institutions, fake websites that look like a legitimate brand’s domain, and even in the form of instant messages. When a crook uses a computer to try to get you to reveal sensitive information to them it’s called “phishing”, and the really good phishers make it very difficult to tell the difference between them and the real thing.
Phishing is an example of social engineering, which is any social or interpersonal communication used for fraud of some kind. A phisher works by passing himself off as a legitimate source, often by mimicking a well-known source (a company, a friend, etc.). Under the pretense of being a trustworthy representative, the phisher crafts a message to potential victims that seems authoritative. And while most people won’t click through on these messages, a very small percentage of people is all that is necessary for the phisher to make money and/or wreak havoc.
It’s not just credit cards, bank accounts, and Social Security numbers that they’re seeking. They’ll take usernames, passwords, email addresses, URL history, cookie data… anything and everything that they can get their hands on that might get them closer to parting you and your money. We’re going to show you how to detect the 3 most common online frauds: email, fake websites, and instant messages.
Email is probably the most common method of phishing attempts. The price is right for spamming (basically free), and distribution of an email can go world-wide in a matter of minutes. A common tactic used by phishers to spread their “bait” is to write an email and use forged email addresses of major banks to inform you that there is a problem with your account. Another trick they employ is to tell you that you’ve won a prize. The safest thing is to not click on any link from an email that you aren’t 100% sure is from a real person or company. Also remember that no company should ever ask for the password to your account in an email! That’s a sure sign of a scam.
If the spam emails don’t ask you to reply back with your account data to “verify” you, they will usually have a link in the email that takes you to a website where you will be prompted enter this information. These phishing websites can look very convincing, too, especially since it’s quite easy to clone another website. Many major ecommerce websites such as PayPal, eBay, and Chase.com have been cloned into a fake website used for phishing purposes.
Fake websites come in a variety of forms, but they all usually have tell-tale signs of being a scam: using an IP address (http://127.0.0.1) vs. a regular domain name (http://example.com/), having a URL that isn’t on the actual domain (for example, http://blog.stopsign.example.com would not be our blog; but at first glance it looks like it), etc. For more information about fake websites, read our blog post on how to detect fake websites.
The scam methods used in IM’s are similar to those from emails. But instead of trying to get you to directly enter information, they usually just provide a link to a website that does all the dirty work for them. It’s best to ignore and/or block unknown users whenever they try to get to you.
Bonus tip: Alternate ways phishers try to catch you
As with most fraud schemes, phishing is a growing resource for crooks and it’s always changing. One alternate method phishers use to scam you is to use a real website to phish. In fact right around the time this post was being written, a Twitter phishing scam made it’s way around the Twitter using their Direct Message (DM) system and tweets, causing a lot of buzz about phishing on the immensely popular service (we even have a StopSign Blog Twitter account). You’ve got to be on your toes all the time to keep yourself safe, but with the tips we’ve written about, you should be able to recognize some of the more common scam methods.