How Phishing and Email Scams Work – and How You Can Avoid Them

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In yesterday’s reader mailbag, I answered a question from a reader who asked for simple ways to avoid identity theft online. I told the reader that the best thing that a person can do is to simply avoid clicking on links within emails.

By the end of the day yesterday, I had several follow-up emails from readers asking quite a few different questions about that statement, so I thought I’d explain it all in detail.

First of all, you should never fully trust that an email is actually from whoever it says in the From: field. It is rather easy to fake such information and it’s because of the implicit trust that people have of the email recipient that many scammers are able to get away with it.

Second, URLs inside of an email can easily be faked as well. Fake links are incredibly easy to embed within emails.

For example, let’s say you receive an email from what appears to be your bank. Let’s say that your bank is Citibank.

The email informs you that there has been some suspicious activity on your account and you’re encouraged to log in to check it out. The following link is provided:

https://www.citibank.com/login

If you happen to click on that link, you’ll realize that it doesn’t take you to Citibank at all. Instead, it just drops you back at the homepage of The Simple Dollar. In fact, the destination of that link could have been anything.

What scammers will do is make up a fake website that looks exactly like the website they’re wanting to scam. So, they might make up a page that looks just like the Citibank site. Then, they’ll send you a fake link – like the one above – that appears to go to the Citibank site but actually goes to their fake site that looks like the Citibank site.

If you login on that fake site, the scammers now have your banking login information. Depending on how they’re doing things, they may ask a few follow-up questions for “security purposes,” then you’ll likely see a message on the fake site saying something like “This site is down for maintenance. Try back later.”

By then, it’s too late. They have your account info – or at least enough info to get what they need.

This type of scam can work with pretty much any online account, from your bank to your credit card, from Amazon to eBay.

So, what can you do? If you get an email from a business that you want to follow up on, don’t click the link in the email. Instead, start up your web browser and go to the website for the company on your own. If there is an issue, you will be able to figure it out fairly quickly after logging onto your account with them.

If you don’t have an account with that business, again, go to a web browser separately from your email and look up their customer service phone number, then call them directly.

These simple steps won’t protect you from every scam, but it will protect you from a lot of them.

One final note: why do these work so well? It’s all about numbers, really. Let’s say a scammer buys a list of one million email addresses. He spends a day setting up a fake website, then uses his spamming program to send out a fake email to each of those addresses. Let’s say 90% of them just ignore the email completely or have it filtered away. That leaves 100,000. Let’s say 99% more don’t have an account with whatever business the email claims to be from. That leaves 1,000. If only 10% of those remaining fall for that scam, this person suddenly has 100 verified banking accounts with which to play with. If the scammer can effectively use or sell those accounts, it’s going to be well worth it.

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