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The quintessential phishing scam goes something like this:

An email arrives in your inbox, purporting to be from a financial institution, retailer or other company with which you do business. Some urgent matter requires your attention – perhaps you need to confirm a charge on your account, for instance. You’re then provided with a link to the website, where you’re asked to enter your login information or perhaps even a credit card number. The website, though, is a very convincing fake, and you’ve just handed over sensitive information to a scammer.

There is, of course, a very easy way to avoid such scams: Simply avoid clicking on any links you see in an email, something that security experts have been telling us for years. But we don’t seem to be listening.

“The number one advice is ‘don’t click on links,’ but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure it’s helped anyone,” says Lenny Zeltser, a director of product management at technology company NCR Corp and a senior faculty member at SANS Institute, which does computer security training. “Security professionals have been giving this advice for a decade.”

Clicking on links is simply too much of an ingrained behavior for people to give up, whether the links are in emails or on social networks. So if you’re not willing to stop clicking links, you can at least learn to watch out for these warning signs that the email or website is not what it claims to be.

Overly Urgent Emails

Legitimate businesses aren’t above putting links in their emails; my bank does it all the time, providing a link for me to follow to view my bank statement. The mere presence of a link does not in itself indicate that there’s something shady afoot. But if an email claims to be in response to some urgent matter – your account being compromised, for instance – you should stop and consider whether a scammer is trying to scare you into making a rash decision.

(That’s especially true for emails that ask you to respond with your account information. Simply asking people to reply with their passwords may not have a high success rate, but it’s easier than setting up an imitation website. As such, the vast majority of businesses have policies against asking for account information in an email, and will explicitly tell you that they’ll never do so.)

And it isn’t just banks trying to scare you into giving up account information. I recently received an urgent Twitter message expressing shock at what I was doing in a video; upon following the link, I was taken to a Facebook application asking me to enter my Twitter login and password to see the alleged video. Had I done so, my account would have undoubtedly been taken over and used to send similar messages to my contacts, spreading the scam.

Finally, scammers may use the promise of a reward rather than fear to get you to click.

“You may be enticed to click by some really attractive offer, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” says Zeltser.

Suspicious Senders

If you’re not sure whether an email is legitimate, check the sender’s email address. The important thing here is the domain, which is the part of the address following the “@” sign. On an individual’s email, this will be something along the lines of “@gmail.com” or “@hotmail.com,” but a company email should have the URL of the company website as its domain.

“Make sure the source email address and domain it’s sending you to match,” explains Marcus Carey, a security researcher at data security firm Rapid7. “Scammers will send emails from other sites, like Gmail.”

Carey does note that it’s possible for a clever scammer to “spoof” an email address, making it appear as if it came from a business rather than from a individual account. But since most recipients won’t bother to check the sending address, scammers know they don’t have to go to the trouble of spoofing the address. As such, it’s absolutely worth it to check the address in case the scammer got lazy.

Sketchy URLs

Let’s say you decided to click through on the link in the email. If it is a phony site, you’ll have a hard time identifying it as such just by looking at it.

“There’s not a whole lot you can reliably do, visually, to safeguard yourself,” says David Gibson of security firm Varonis.

But there’s one thing that scammers won’t be able to effectively imitate: The web address.

“Sometimes people end up on phishing sites, but don’t look at the domain name when they get there,” says Carey. “[Scammers] will register a domain, but it’s a little off… they’ll transpose letters for numbers. People need to look closely at those URLs.”

Scammers frequently engage in a practice known as “typosquatting,” which involves registering a misspelled version of a popular website so that clumsy users will land on their scam site when they hit the wrong key. Similarly, if they’re setting up a phony site as part of a phishing scam, they’ll want the URL to appear the same at a passing glance. This might involve transposing two characters in the URL, or swapping out the letter ‘o’ for the number ‘0.’ Either way, you can beat this crude trick by carefully reading the address when you get there.

Ideally, though, you’ll check the address before you even click, and Carey recommends hovering over the link so that you can preview the URL before clicking (usually it will appear in a corner of your browser). But that’s not always possible. Link shortening services like TinyURL and bit.ly are in widespread use as a means of condensing long, ungainly addresses, and are often seen on social networking sites. The downside is that it means you can’t preview the web address before clicking, but there are ways around that.

“You should be extra cautious of clicking on links that have been shortened, but some shorteners allow you to preview the true destination of a link,” says Zeltser. For bit.ly links, for instance, you can paste the shortened link into the address field and then add a + sign at the end before you hit the return key. For TinyURL links, add “preview.” into the link before “tinyurl.”

Invalid Security Certificate

Occasionally when attempting to visit a site, your web browser will pop up with a security warning that the website’s security certificate is expired or invalid. It’s not a warning you should ignore.

“The idea is that you’ve got a certificate authority authenticating that the site is what it says it is,” explains Gibson. But if the certificate presented by the site doesn’t match the name of the site, or if the certificate is expired or otherwise considered invalid, any modern browser should immediately detect that something is amiss: A website may be trying to appear to be something it’s not.

Make sure you heed any warnings about expired or missing security certificates if you end up on a site that’s asking for account or login information. And before punching in your account number, credit card information or any other sensitive data, make sure the url begins with “HTTPS” – that ‘S’ indicates that the connection between you and the site’s server is secure, ensuring that a third party can’t intercept the data in question.

Not only does that ensure a secure transaction with your bank or retailer, but an absent ‘S’ may be another hint that you’re dealing with a phony site.

“If it’s not there, that’s a good indicator that the site is malicious, or incompetent,” says Zeltser.

Image: ivanpw, via Flickr

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  • the removals site

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  • Nofew

    There’s another way to check for scammers in an email. It’s pretty simple and even works if they’re spoofing the address — In fact, it *only* works if they’re spoofing the address.

    Click the “reply” button and read what’s in the “to” address field. If the email is spoofed, obviously, the scammer needs some way to get the message to go back to them rather than the email they’re forging. Without getting into technical details, there /is/ a way to do this, and one of the simplest ways to check if it’s the case is just to read what’s in the “to” field.

  • nonie smith

    just robbed this past friday by a company in miami of 1,180.79 who some how got my debit card number. name of the co. is TAM BRAZILIAN AIRLINES. THEY TOOK ALL BUT 98.00 OUT OF MY ACCOUNT AND TOOK MY RENT AND UTILITY MONEY FOR THE MONTH. I AM 61 YEARS OLD AND WIDOWED.

  • NONIE SMITH

    robbed this past week by TAM BRAZILIAN AIRLINES in miami. they took 1,180.79 out of my checking account. probably got my debit card # where I pay some bills on computer.

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  • L

    Gee, I got to this blog by clicking on a link! The advice above is excellent though: hit ‘reply’ to the email and watch where it is returning to!

    P.T. Barnum was right, though, there IS a sucker born every minute. Some folks just ask to be fleeced!

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