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See Inside December 2008

How to Foil "Phishing" Scams

Understanding the human factors that make people vulnerable to online criminals can improve both security training and technology



Chad Baker (computer) and Riko Pictures (hooks), Getty Images

Over just a few weeks, I received e-mail messages from several banks warning me that my online banking services were in danger of being deactivated, from eBay telling me that I needed to change my password, from Apple complaining that I had unpaid bills for music downloads, from an airline offering me the opportunity to earn a quick $50 for filling out a survey and from the Red Cross asking me to contribute money to help earthquake victims in China. These messages were all very convincing and looked authentic. Except for the eBay message, however, they were all fraudulent e-mails known as “phish.”

Phish e-mails are constructed by con artists to look like legitimate communications, often from familiar and reputable companies, and usually ask victims to take urgent action to avoid a consequence or receive a reward. The desired response typically involves logging in to a Web site or calling a phone number to provide personal information. Sometimes victims need only click on links or open e-mail attachments for their computers to become infected by malicious software—known as malware—that allows phishers to retrieve the data they want or take control of the victim’s computer to launch future attacks. Although the details of phishing scams can vary, the result is usually the same: thousands of unsuspecting victims give information to criminals who then use it to break in to their accounts and steal their money or identities, or both.

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