How To Avoid it in the First Place
There are a few key tips that give away phishing scams. Firstly, is there a sense of urgency? Your utility companies aren’t going to call and say they’ll shut off your water without at least a few mailed reminders that your bill is due! The same goes for your bank. If they demand that you resolve a problem right then, right there, out of the blue, it’s probably a phishing scam (if you’re nervous it’s not a scam, call the alleged company using their number off of their real website). This goes for both phone and email phishers.
If it’s an email or a text, ask yourself if you were expecting an email or a text from that company. If you get a Fedex text update that you didn’t sign up for, it might be a phishing scam. If you got a notification from Walgreens that your photos have finished printing, and you didn’t print any photos, it might be a phishing scam. They want you to click or tap the links they include to see what’s going on. Spelling errors are also a common tell – it’s not impossible for a company to make spelling errors in their communications with you, but they won’t be littering the page with them! Phishing scams do that to weed out people who know better so they won’t waste time on targets that won’t crack. Note that not every phishing scam comes with typos, even though they are common.
You should also check the sender of the email! Spoofing is a technique that attaches a real name that you might know to an email address or phone number that definitely doesn’t belong to them. Anyone can set their name to George Smith or Big Company Customer Service in Gmail, but they can’t change the email address they’re sending from. If it’s [email protected] and not [email protected], for example, it’s probably a phishing scam.
The same goes for caller ID, although it’s getting harder and harder to tell real calls from fake ones – scammers can set their name to something like “Hospital” or “School” to make it more likely you’ll pick up. Some more sophisticated operations can even make it look like they’re calling from a different number altogether, using VOIP technology to match the area code of the caller to the person being called. Just like in the urgency tip, you should be able to call a legitimate company or organization like a school back from the number they have on their website, or the number you know to reach them at. If they’re really resistant to you hanging up and calling back for reasons that don’t make sense, it might be phishing. Unfortunately, some scam calls are really tough to pick up on, and the FCC can’t do much to stop them if they’re not in the US. Many people today don’t answer their phone unless they were explicitly expecting a call as a result, and phone companies themselves sometimes offer up call and text screening.
How to Better Protect Your Accounts
Luckily, there are a few tips that can make your information safer in the face of trickier scams! Firstly, don’t re-use passwords. If a password you were using for multiple accounts gets stolen, then multiple accounts are at risk, not just one. We recommend a password manager like BitWarden – it makes it much easier to store and create unique, strong passwords for every site!
Secondly, you’ll be better protected if you use two-factor authentication on every website that has the option to. If you do fall for a phishing scam, the scammer won’t have the code necessary to get in! Of course, some scams are sophisticated enough to think of that beforehand: Craigslist, for example, had a bad rash of scammers a while back who would “text a code” to a seller “to make sure they were a real person”. The seller then gives them the code, and the scammer now has a Google Voice number with the seller’s phone number as the verified number behind it! They just social-engineered their way into bypassing 2FA. This is why you should never give out verification codes – especially if you didn’t request them. Instead, it might be time to reset the password of the account that verification email came from. Just don’t click any links in those verification emails, either: go straight to the home page of the site instead to log in. The verification email might be a phishing attempt all by itself, hoping you’ll click a fake link to the website!