Thursday night and checking Facebook on my mobile before going to sleep. One of my friends is complaining about how hard it is to use Yahoo mail abroad. Problem logging in and now there’s some problem with the account. “Your E-mail account has exceeded its limit and needs to be verified, if not verified within 24 hours, we shall suspend your account. Click Here to verify your email account now.” And when you try to resolve it, it doesn’t even work. You just end up on the login page! Damn Yahoo!
Stop! This message is not about a problem with the mail system, it’s a very typical phishing mail. I responded with a warning, and yes, the link had indeed been clicked and the credentials entered on a page that looked like the Yahoo login page. That made my friend a phishing victim like so many other Internet users. It was the beginning of a long night trying to figure out how to change the mail password using a tiny mobile screen. But the case came to a happy end. The password was apparently changed before the attackers had a chance to take benefit from the account, thanks to the swift reaction.
How to spot a phishing attempt?
- It arrives as a mail message. Mail can be sent by anyone and it is trivial to spoof the sender’s address so that it seems to come from your mail operator or some other company you trust.
- People think less when they are afraid so it tries to create a sense of danger. Something bad will happen unless you react. The closure of your account is a very common threat when phishing for e-mail accounts.
- People think less when in a hurry so it tries to create a sense of urgency. You need to act right now. This lowers the risk that the victim checks out the facts first. The 24h deadline is a typical trick to achieve this.
- It links to a web page that looks like an official page of, for example, your mail operator. But it is actually controlled by the attacker, who also receives any information you enter. You are hacked if you enter your mail user name and password, or other valuable information.
My friend is not a computer newbie, and did in theory know all this. But the attack succeeded anyway. How is this possible? Imagine that it is late in the night and you are tired. There are other people distracting you. You are traveling and really depending on your mail account. And on top of that, you have had problems and expect even more trouble with this operator. So this is a very typical situation where the fingers can be faster than the brains. This is really the optimal situation for an attacker to hit, and they happened to send this phishing mail at the
right wrong time. Honestly, are you sure this couldn’t happen to you?
Ok, so what should I do to avoid being phished?
- First of all, do not click links in mails! This is not just about phishing, many get malware too by clicking links. But there are also legitimate links that friends send to you. So you should always think about who the sender is (remember, the apparent sender can be spoofed), in what style and language the message is written, what the claimed content of the link is and how does all this fit together? To summarize, do I expect this kind of message from this person (or company) at this time? This way you should be able to spot the legit links.
- If in doubt, check what address the link is taking you to before you click. Note that the text forming the visible part of the link may look like a web URL but still be linked to a totally different address. Hover the mouse pointer over the link and examine the address that the mail client or browser shows you. Make sure that the address match the company or site that the link is claimed to point to. For example: The login to Gmail should start with “https://accounts.google.com/” but a phishing site targeting Gmail may use an address like “http://accounts.google.com.etw368hj.nu/”. The latter does NOT belong to Gmail.
- Get familiar with the login URLs of your favorite services BEFORE you run into a phishing mail. Then it is a lot easier to spot the spoof. The address may look long and nerdy, but you only need to mind the part after the double-slash “//” but before the first single slash. That part identifies the server that you will access. (Your browser may show the address without the initial “http://”, in that case just examine the part before the first slash.)
- Get familiar with the concept of secured web pages and how to recognize them. Login pages of important services are typically protected this way. Their addresses start with “https://” instead of “http://” and your browser shows a lock or similar symbol next to the address field. You can examine the certificate of the server you are connected to by clicking the lock, and this is reasonable hard proof about who’s running the service. Needless to say, the phishing sites can’t duplicate these cryptographic certificates.
- If you suspect that there really may be a problem with your mail account, then log in with the link that you normally use to access the account. Do not use a link in a mail message. Look for info banners and pop-up messages shown in the browser after you have logged in. These messages are a lot more reliable and can generally be trusted. Mail operators are well aware of the phishing threat. If you get a mail claiming that there’s a problem, then you can be pretty sure that it isn’t true. The mail operators do not communicate in that way.
- If you still fall for the scam, attempt to change your password right away. This is also a good time to think about if you have used the same password on other services. Say that firstname.lastname@example.org is using the same password as email@example.com. If one get hacked, then the hacker just need to try some of the common mail services to get access to more accounts. This would be a good time to brush up your password practices.
As a practice, examine the link above and try to figure out where it points and what company it belongs to without clicking it.
Phishing @ Wikipedia.
Phishing is the act of attempting to acquire information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Communications purporting to be from popular social web sites, auction sites, online payment processors or IT administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public.