Phishing is perhaps a cybercriminal’s favorite tool to get hold of personal data. According to Deloitte, a whopping 91% of all cyber attacks start with a phishing email. They’re so popular that they’ve become a pandemic of their own. But unlike with COVID-19, a cure for this one doesn’t seem anywhere on the horizon. Similar to most other cybercrimes, there’s no real way to end phishing scams.
But there’s good news: these frauds are preventable with adequate measures. But it requires a good dose of caution and robust safety measures. So, in this quick guide, we’ll explain the telltale signs of these malicious attacks, what you can do to protect yourself, and how to report phishing email.
Phishing emails: what do they look like?
Identifying a phishing email is painfully difficult. If you fall prey to one, don’t feel bad, the majority of email users can’t identify them either. But this doesn’t mean they are impossible to detect. Once you understand what to look for, you could easily pick up on the telltale signs.
These emails often have one of two objectives:
1. Extract personal information that could help criminals commit further crimes.
There are various methods a criminal could use to phish your identifiable data. For example, they could send an email attachment that downloads spyware and collects sensitive data from your phone or desktop. Or they might share a malicious link that takes you to a fake website, which resembles the site of a well-known organization like a bank or retailer. These are often designed to elicit your account credentials or some other personal information privy only to that organization.
Criminals might even ask for your sensitive data outright. As surprising as it may seem, this strategy could work as well, especially when the email masquerades as someone you know in a remarkably convincing manner.
And what kind of data could they typically phish for? Pretty much anything linked to your identity. These can range from your bank account details, credit card numbers, account usernames, and passwords to your address, social security number, tax ID, and medical records. Once you become a victim, the outcomes could be hard to predict. For instance, a criminal could carry out tax fraud or medical scams or even commit crimes targeting others using your identity.
2. Target you for financial fraud.
Financial fraud using phishing emails is not just limited to extracting your bank account information or filing a fraudulent tax claim. Criminals could also convince you to perform a monetary transaction.
For example, they could impersonate a family member and request money with a wire transfer for an emergency. They could appear as a charity requesting a donation or the IRS demanding an overdue payment. Some scams involve sweepstakes and lotteries, where victims are asked to settle a processing fee before claiming a prize. These types of fraud often target the elderly or non-English speakers.
Heeding the warning signs.
The bottom line is, you cannot trust a single email request that comes your way. Phishing emails are often both convincing and persuasive. They’ll appeal to your emotions using, for example, fear, worry, or empathy and will typically demand immediate action.
There are other red flags, too, that could give away a phishing scam. For instance, the email address might slightly differ from the one they’re impersonating. If you examine closely, you might notice an extra hyphen or a missing letter. The email signature is another giveaway. It might look slightly different from the original sender’s. If a criminal is impersonating someone familiar to you, you might even notice a slight difference in the salutation or the writing style.
Protecting yourself from a phishing attack
A cautious approach is critical to protect yourself from phishing scams. Here’s what you should avoid in general:
- Responding to email requests that involve personally identifiable information or a monetary transaction like a donation or a transfer of money.
- Downloading attachments.
- Clicking on links.
Reputed organizations hardly ever request personal details using emails. They’re particularly cautious with these practices due to the potential risks of exposing their customers or users to malicious attacks. But if you’re in doubt, reach out to them first with a quick call and verify details.
Reporting phishing emails
If you receive a phishing email, it’s important to report it. It’ll help authorities to research and build awareness among others, preventing the risk of more people becoming victims. While ending phishing scams might be a challenging task, minimizing the damage they could potentially inflict is certainly a possibility.
So, whom should you inform? You can forward the email to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), a global coalition that fights cybercrime. Reporting to the Federal Trade Commission is also essential, especially if you’ve become a victim of a phishing scam.
To sum up
Today, phishing emails have become one of the most prevalent threats to internet users. They’re often designed to target innocent victims for identity theft or financial scams. And these emails are not only highly deceptive but difficult to identify, too. So, being overly cautious will not hurt you when it comes to evading a possible phishing scam. Of course, there are warning signs that could help you identify malicious emails. They often bank on creating a sense of urgency to push you into immediate action. You might also notice minor details such as language errors or slight differences in the email address.
As a habit, avoid responding to anyone that requests personal information or a financial transaction via email. Links and attachments are also best left untouched unless you’ve verified the authenticity of the email.
Security hygiene is crucial to evade email phishing. Alerting authorities is equally important to launch a unified effort to ward off these scams.