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Security alert! Don’t get hooked by the phishers

Phishing attacks. We’ve all seen the headlines. They are one of the biggest security threats we face, affecting over 5 million people annually in the U.S. alone and netting billions of dollars for the perpetrators.  

But what exactly is a phishing attack? Simply put, it’s the criminally fraudulent attempt to acquire sensitive information such as passwords, usernames, and account numbers by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Millions of us have received these "urgent" e-mails asking us to take immediate action to prevent some impending disaster. "Our bank has a new security system. Update your information now or you won't be able to access your account," or "We couldn't verify your information; click here to update your account." Sometimes the e-mail claims that you will get rich by helping out: "The sum of $30,000,000 is going to go to the Nigerian Government unless you help me transfer it to your bank account."

People who click on the links in these e-mails may see a web page that looks like a legitimate site they've visited before. Because the page looks familiar, people unwittingly enter their username, password, or other private information. What they've actually done is given an unknown third party all the information needed to hijack their account, steal their money, or open up new lines of credit in their name. They just fell for a phishing attack.

There are some simple steps we can take to protect ourselves against these attacks:

  • Be careful about responding to e-mails that ask you for sensitive information. You should be very wary of clicking on links in e-mails or responding to e-mails that ask for things like account numbers, user names and passwords, or other personal information such as social security numbers. Most legitimate businesses will never ask for this information via e-mail.
  • Go to the site yourself, rather than clicking on links. If you receive a communication asking for sensitive information but think it could be legitimate, open a new browser window and go to the organization's website as you normally would. If there's actually something you need to do, there will usually be a notification on the site. If you're not sure about a request you've received, don't be afraid to contact the organization directly to ask. It takes just a few minutes to go to the organization's website, find an e-mail address or phone number for customer support, and reach out to confirm whether the request is legitimate.
  • If you're on a site that's asking you to enter sensitive information, check for signs of anything suspicious. If you're on a site that's asking for sensitive information – no matter how you got there – check for signs that it's really the official website for the organization. For example, check the URL to make sure the page is actually part of the organization's website, and not a fraudulent page on a different domain. If you're on a page that should be secured (like one asking you to enter in your credit card information) look for "https" at the beginning of the URL and the padlock icon in the browser. These signs aren't infallible, but they're a good place to start.
  • Be wary of "fabulous offers" and "fantastic prizes". If something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and it could be a phishing attack attempting to obtain your information. Whenever you come across an offer online that requires you to share personal or other sensitive information to take advantage of it, be sure to ask lots of questions and check the site asking for your information for signs of anything suspicious.
  • Use a browser that has a phishing filter. The latest versions of most browsers, including Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer include filters that can help you spot potential phishing attacks.
Remember that the youngest and oldest members of your family are potentially the most vulnerable. Make sure they are aware of the threats and treat all e-mail from unknown sources as suspicious.
    
 

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