Phishing is when a fraudster sends an email or text message to a user that appears to originate from trusted source, such as a bank. By clicking on a link or opening an attachment in the phishing message, the user can unwittingly load malware onto their device or can be lured into entering their login details on a fake version of the trusted site. They may try to steal your passwords, account numbers, or Social Security numbers.
In the first case, the malware then installs itself on the browser without the user’s knowledge. The malware records the data sent between the victim and specific targeted websites, such as financial institutions, and transmits it to the attacker.
In the second, the user’s login details are recorded by the fake site. The user will often get a generic message indicating that the login failed or that the system is down for maintenance and they should try later. Meanwhile, the criminals now have the actual login details and can clean out the account.
Spear Phishing is similar, but is more directed. While phishing is often performed in a shotgun approach, where the scammer sends email or text to a list of random addresses, spear phishing aims at a particular person or company, and often refers to people or circumstances known to a specific circle of target email addresses.
Spear phishing can be quite convincing, whereas the shotgun style is often more easy to spot – for instance, if you don’t have an account with the bank or other service the scam email uses as bait.
Phishing emails and text messages often tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment.
- say they’ve noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts
- claim there’s a problem with your account or your payment information
- say you must confirm some personal information
- include a fake invoice
- want you to click on a link to make a payment
- say you’re eligible to register for a government refund
- offer a coupon for free stuff
- Protect your computer by using security software. Set the software to update automatically so it can deal with any new security threats.
- Protect your mobile phone by setting software to update automatically. These updates could give you critical protection against security threats.
- Protect your accounts by using multi-factor authentication. Some accounts offer extra security by requiring two or more credentials to log in to your account. This is called multi-factor authentication. The additional credentials you need to log in to your account fall into two categories:
- Something you have — like a passcode you get via text message or an authentication app.
- Something you are — like a scan of your fingerprint, your retina, or your face.
- Multi-factor authentication makes it harder for scammers to log in to your accounts if they do get your username and password.
- Protect your data by backing it up. Back up your data and make sure those backups aren’t connected to your home network. You can copy your computer files to an external hard drive or cloud storage. Back up the data on your phone, too.
What to Do If You Suspect a Phishing Attack
If you get an email or a text message that asks you to click on a link or open an attachment, answer this question: Do I have an account with the company or know the person that contacted me?
If the answer is “No,” it could be a phishing scam. Go back and review the tips in How to recognize phishing and look for signs of a phishing scam. If you see them, report the message and then delete it.
If the answer is “Yes,” contact the company using a phone number or website you know is real. Not the information in the email. Attachments and links can install harmful malware.What to Do If You Responded to a Phishing Email
If you think a scammer has your information, like your Social Security, credit card, or bank account number, go to IdentityTheft.gov. There you’ll see the specific steps to take based on the information that you lost.
If you think you clicked on a link or opened an attachment that downloaded harmful software, update your computer’s security software. Then run a scan.
How to Report Phishing
If you got a phishing email or text message, report it. The information you give can help fight the scammers.
Step 1. If you got a phishing email, forward it to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you got a phishing text message, forward it to SPAM (7726).
Step 2. Report the phishing attack to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.