3 Simple Things to Check if it’s a Phishing Email
Nowadays, we all seem to receive hundreds of emails a week. We get so many that it can be hard to read through all the ones that we care about, let alone filter out the ones that are spam or phishing. Attackers are banking on the deluge to prevent us from taking the necessary time to determine which emails are malicious and which are safe.
Many of us think of phishing emails as the classic, “I just inherited a large sum of money that I want to share with you, but before I can do that I need you to send me $1000 so that I can pay the wire transfer fee.” But after a few decades of practice, attackers are becoming more sophisticated. It’s become common for them to duplicate emails from legitimate sources such as Facebook, going so far as to mimic verbiage, email formatting, logos, etc.
That said, there are some simple things to look at to determine what emails are legitimate and what are not.
1. Look for Atypical Behavior
This step can be tricky, especially if you are unfamiliar with how a company reaches out to its customers. However, a general rule of thumb is that companies will not ask for sensitive information via email. If Facebook sends an email asking for your password (especially out of the blue), there is a high likelihood that you are not dealing with Facebook. Besides passwords, personally identifying information (PII) such as social security numbers, passport info, etc. and banking information should never be emailed. Most reputable businesses adhere to this standard. If this information is requested, you are likely being scammed (the other alternative is that it is an individual or organization that does not value information security so you shouldn’t be sending your PII to people like that anyways).
Another example of atypical behavior is an email that avoids specific language. A company like Facebook will typically try to be endearing and refer to you by name. Saying, “Sir/ma’am” or just “Hi!” is a good indication that it is a generic email sent to hundreds of people at once.
Lastly and most simply, go with your gut. Are there spelling mistakes that a multi-million dollar company shouldn’t be making? Is the sender asking for things that the company wouldn’t need? Is the email making you panicked and trying to get you to act immediately? Any or all of these small things could indicate that something is wrong.
2. Check the email address
While it is not tremendously difficult to create a convincing fake email address, pretend to be a legitimate email address, or even hijack an email account, most attackers will not be bothered to take those measures to avoid detection. The attackers’ strategy is to send as many emails as possible with the hope that at least a handful of recipients click on their email. To avoid being one of them, look at the “To:” line. Is it an email address that you recognize? Are there spelling mistakes? Is it just flat-out bizarre looking? For example, one of our team recently received an email pretending to be from Verizon that used “9pojp5e8oUmnmac@vyerpvnw.
3. Check for Strange Links
Finally, look for strange links to other websites. One of our customers reached out to us because she received an email that said an account of hers was suspended. We checked the email address that sent the message and saw that it was firstname.lastname@example.org (which is a valid Facebook email). The wording seemed right too. But there was one glaring clue that this was a phishing attack–the email contained a link to tribelo.page/
So, what do I do if I suspect an email is a phishing attempt?
First things first, do NOT click on any links or download any files from a potentially fraudulent email. If you truly believe there is something wrong with an account of yours, go to your account to check! Chances are that once you are logged in, you will either see an alert that describes the issue, or you will not (indicating that nothing is actually wrong). If you are still unsure, call customer support. The agent on the other end of the line will be the authority. However, search for the number online and do not trust any phone numbers in a suspected email. Sometimes attackers will pretend to be customer support agents to add a layer of complexity to their attacks. Next, report the email and then delete it! Many email providers have options to report suspected emails as spam or phishing.
If you find yourself tricked by a phishing email, do not feel bad. After all, attackers are spending considerable amounts of time and effort to make their emails believable. Do what you can to minimize potential damage. If you supplied credit card info, cancel the card. If you entered a password, change it. Call the account’s customer support, your security team, etc. to determine your next steps. And finally, learn from your mistakes so that the bad guys will have to work harder next time.
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