“Phishing” involves the use of fraudulent emails and copy-cat websites to trick you into revealing valuable personal information — such as account numbers for banking, securities, mortgage, or credit accounts, your social security numbers, and the login IDs and passwords you use when accessing online financial services providers. The fraudsters who collect this information then use it to steal your money or your identity or both.
When fraudsters go on “phishing” expeditions, they lure their targets into a false sense of security by hijacking the familiar, trusted logos of established, legitimate companies. A typical phishing scam starts with a fraudster sending out millions of emails that appear to come from a high-profile financial services provider or a respected Internet auction house.
The email will usually ask you to provide valuable information about yourself or to “verify” information that you previously provided when you established your online account. To maximize the chances that a recipient will respond, the fraudster might employ any or all of the following tactics:
- Names of Real Companies — Rather than create from scratch a phony company, the fraudster might use a legitimate company’s name and incorporate the look and feel of its website (including the color scheme and graphics) into the phishy email.
- “From” an Actual Employee — The “from” line or the text of the message (or both) might contain the names of real people who actually work for the company. That way, if you contacted the company to confirm whether “Jane Doe” truly is “VP of Client Services,” you’d get a positive response and feel assured.
- Urgent Messages — Many fraudsters use fear to trigger a response, and phishers are no different. In common phishing scams, the emails warn that failure to respond will result in your no longer having access to your account. Other emails might claim that the company has detected suspicious activity in your account or that it is implementing new privacy software or identity theft solutions.
How to Protect Yourself from Phishing
The best way you can protect yourself from phony phishers is to understand what legitimate financial service providers and respectable online auction houses will and will not do. Most importantly, legitimate entities will not ask you to provide or verify sensitive information through a non-secure means, such as email.
Follow these five simple steps to protect yourself from phishers:
- Pick Up the Phone to Verify — Do not respond to any emails that request personal or financial information, especially ones that use pressure tactics or prey on fear. If you have reason to believe that a financial institution actually does need personal information from you, pick up the phone and call the company yourself — using the number in your rolodex, not the one the email provides!
- Do Your Own Typing — Rather than merely clicking on the link provided in the email, type the URL into your web browser yourself (or use a bookmark you previously created). Even though a URL in an email may look like the real deal, fraudsters can mask the true destination.
- Beef Up Your Security — Personal firewalls and security software packages (with anti-virus, anti-spam, and spyware detection features) are a must-have for those who engage in online financial transactions. Make sure your computer has the latest security patches, and make sure that you conduct your financial transactions only on a secure web page using encryption. You can tell if a page is secure in a couple of ways. Look for a closed padlock in the status bar, and see that the URL starts with “https” instead of just “http.”
- Read Your Statements — Don’t toss aside your monthly account statements! Read them thoroughly as soon as they arrive to make sure that all transactions shown are ones that you actually made, and check to see whether all of the transactions that you thought you made appear as well. Be sure that the company has current contact information for you, including your mailing address and email address.
- Spot the Sharks — Visit the website of the Anti-Phishing Working Group at www.antiphishing.org for a list of current phishing attacks and the latest news in the fight to prevent phishing. There you’ll find more information about phishing and links to helpful resources.
[sws_yellow_box box_size=”550″]Security Tip: Some phishers make spoofed websites which appear to have padlocks. To double-check, click on the padlock icon on the status bar to see the security certificate for the site. Following the “Issued to” in the pop-up window you should see the name matching the site you think you’re on. If the name differs, you are probably on a spoofed site.[/sws_yellow_box]
What to Do if You Run into Trouble
Always act quickly when you come face to face with a potential fraud, especially if you’ve lost money or believe your identity has been stolen.
- Phishy Emails — If a phishing scam rolls into your email box, be sure to tell the company right away. You can also report the scam to the FBI’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. If the email purports to come from a brokerage firm or mutual fund company, be sure to pass along that tip to the SEC’s Enforcement Division by forwarding the email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Identity Theft — If you think that your personal information has been stolen, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Resource Center at www.consumer.gov/idtheft/index.html for information on how to file a complaint and control the damage.
- Securities Scams — Before you do business with any investment-related firm or individual, do your own independent research to check out their background and confirm whether they are legitimate. For step-by-step tips and links to helpful websites, please read Check Out Brokers and Advisers and SIPC Exposes Phony “Look-Alike” Web Site. Report investment-related scams to the SEC using our online Complaint Center.