The Fight Against Phishing: 44 Ways to Protect Yourself

Updated: March 18, 2010

It's a scam that generates billions of dollars even when only 5 percent of the darts hit the target, it threatens the integrity of online transactions between customers and e-business houses, it's a constant cat-and-mouse game between the perpetrators and the security guys hot on their heels - phishing, carding, brand spoofing, web spoofing - call it what you will, there's no escaping the fact that the threat of this swindle is getting more dangerous by the day.

The offenders have at their disposal an arsenal of weaponry - seemingly innocuous links embedded in emails that redirect to fake sites, pop-up windows that encourage you to enter sensitive information, URL masks that conjure up real Web addresses, and keystroke loggers that are lurking around waiting to capture your user ids and passwords even as you type them. You don't necessarily have to be tech-savvy to protect yourself from phishing attacks, it's enough if you keep your wits about you, are a little aware that not all sites on the Internet are the genuine article, and follow one or a combination of the following 44 tips.

Simple, but effective…

1. Never trust strangers: The same rules you were taught as a child come into play here; DO NOT open emails that are from people you don't know. Set your junk and spam mail filter to deliver only content from those in your address book.

2. Sidestep those links: What happens if your spam filter is fooled into delivering junk mail to your inbox, and you happen to open it? Simple - NEVER click on links embedded in your email.

3. Guard your privacy: Your mouse just happened to move over the link and lo and behold, you're transported to another website where you're asked to provide sensitive information like user names, account numbers, password and credit card and social security numbers. Just one word for you - DON'T.

4. Fear Not: More often than not, these phony websites come with threats or warnings that your account is in danger of being deactivated if you don't confirm your user information, or that the IRS is due to pay you a visit if you don't comply with what's written on the page. Just IGNORE them.

5. Pick up the phone and call: If you are in doubt that it just may be a legitimate request, and that your bank is actually asking you to reveal sensitive information online, CALL your customer service representative before you do anything foolhardy.

6. Use the keypad, not the mouse: TYPE in URLs instead of clicking on links to online shopping and banking sites that typically ask for credit card and account numbers.

7. Look for the lock: Valid sites that use encryption to securely transfer sensitive information are characterized by a lock on the bottom right of your browser window, NOT your web page. They also have addresses that begin with https:// rather than the usual http://.

8. Spot the difference: Sometimes, just the presence of the lock alone is proof enough that the site is authentic. To verify its genuineness, double-click the lock to display the site's security certificate, and CHECK if the name on the certificate and the address bar match. If they don't you're on a problem site, so get the hell out of there.

9. Second time right: If you're worried that you've reached a phishing site that's masquerading as your banking page, sometimes the easiest way to check is to enter a WRONG password. The fake site will accept it, and then you're usually redirected to a page that says they're having technical difficulties, so could you please check back later? Your original banking site will not allow you entry.

10. Different is the keyword here: Use DIFFERENT passwords for different sites; I know it's a tough ask these days when most functions of the brain are being passed on to technology, but this is a good way to prevent phishers from getting at all your sensitive transactions, even if they've managed to compromise one.

11. Keep your eyes open: A spam email is littered with grammatical errors, is generally not personalized, and usually has either some link or a suspicious attachment. RECOGNIZE and report them as spam.

12. Familiarity breeds contempt: Not sure that you can spot a phisher's email when you receive one? Well, take a LOOK at these and you'll know how they're generally framed. By and by, you'll learn how to spot the fake ones.

13. Greed doesn't pay: NEVER be taken in by offers of money for participating in surveys that ask for sensitive information. These are always fraudulent attempts to get hold of your personal details. You may get the $20 that's promised, but there's also a high probability that you may find your account cleaned out.

14. No stepping out: Do not leave your computer UNATTENDED when logged into your bank account or when you've provided credit card information on a shopping site.

15. Proper exits count: Once you've finished your business, LOG OUT properly instead of just closing the browser window, especially if you're using a public terminal.

16. You can never be too careful: LOG INTO your bank account on a regular basis and keep tabs on your money. You don't want to wake up one fine day and find that a phisher's been siphoning off a few hundred dollars every now and then.

17. A little knowledge is not dangerous: Keep yourself up to date with the latest news and INFORMATION on phishing.

18. Hard evidence: Be very careful when disposing of old computers and hard disks. Recycled computers have been found to retain confidential information pertaining to Internet banking. Use software to ERASE and over-write data on your hard disk to ensure that it is not recoverable.


For business as usual…

19. I know him, or do I? Beware of SPEAR PHISHING - when your corporate account is compromised and emails soliciting private information reportedly come from your colleagues or higher-ups, it's better to call the person concerned and verify the authenticity of the email.

20. Peruse those records: As part of a business organization, there's much you can do to prevent phishers from compromising your firm's security. Set up firewalls and get you're your anti-virus systems in place. MONITOR the logs from your DNS and proxy servers, firewalls and other intrusion detection systems on a regular basis to check if you've been infected.

21. Policy is the best policy: Set strict POLICIES for the creation of passwords for your clients, servers and routers, and ensure that your personnel follow them diligently.

22. No intruding: Establish intrusion detection and prevention systems that protect your network content and prevent the sending and receipt of phishing emails. Protect your GATEWAY with anti-phishing and anti-virus tools and firewalls.

23. Watch the company you keep: Maintain a list of approved DEVICES that are allowed to connect to your firm's network.


Taking technology on your side…

24. It's a matter of trust: An important question is, can you trust the site's certificate to be authentic? VeriSign was guilty of issuing security certificates to sites that claimed to be part of Microsoft not so long ago. The latest versions of browsers, IE 7 and Opera 9 will soon be able to provide users with EV SSL (Extended Validation SSL) certificates that assure them of being on a genuine site. The address bar shows green for the good guys and red for the doubtful ones.

25. From phishers with greed: Emails can also be spoofed. The only way you can be sure they are not, is to use clients that support S/MIME digital signatures. First check if the sender's address is correct, and then look for the digital signature. This is a pretty effective anti-phishing tactic as the signature is generated by the client after the mail has been opened and authenticated, and because it's based on robust cryptographic techniques.

26. Keep up or else: Make sure your operating system and browsers are UPDATED regularly. Check for the latest patches and apply them immediately.

27. Build that fence: PROTECT your computer with effective anti-virus and anti-spam software, and set up firewalls to keep those sneaky Trojan horses out. They are capable of the worst kind of phishing - installing surreptitious key-logging software on your system that captures all your keystrokes and transports them to the crooks in some unknown location. What's worse is that the infection spreads from your PC to other systems on your network, till all the computers are compromised.

28. Two are better than one: Use two-factor authentication to log on to sensitive sites. The COMBINATION of a software token like a password and a hardware device like an ATM card make it doubly hard to crack open an account with just one or none of the two verification factors.

29. Step by step: It's harder for phishers to gain access to your password if you SPLIT the login process into two phases - entering your user ID in the first and other credentials in the second. The process is even more secure when you enter identification details in the second phase only if the input window is personalized in some way, for example, if an image explicitly selected by you is displayed.

30. Not just a token: Consider using an ID Vault USB TOKEN that encrypts all your user ids and passwords and stores them on a flash drive, which can then be used to securely log onto websites. Most tokens come with a list of legitimate sites and also prevent key-logging software from working effectively. The device itself is password-protected, so thieves have an added layer of encryption to tackle.

31. Hashing to confuse: Software plug-ins are joining in the fight against phishing, an example being the PwdHash, or password HASH tool developed by two Stanford professors that scrambles any password you type, and creates a unique sign-on for each site you visit. Even if phishers are given a password, it's the wrong one.

32. I spy no spies: Another application developed along the lines of PwdHash, and also created by the same two Stanford professors, the SPYBLOCK tool prevents Trojan horse key-logging programs from stealing your passwords.

33. Extending protection: Browser extensions like Antiphish used as a plug-in by Mozilla's Firefox offer protection against phishing attacks by maintaining LISTS of passwords and other sensitive information, and issuing warnings when users type this information on fishy sites.

34. Framing policies: Banks and online business houses would do well to use the open-source SPF (Sender Policy Framework) standard which prevents email addresses from being spoofed by listing servers that are allowed to send mail.

35. Taking on trust: As an alternative, they could use a TRUST SERVICE like GeoTrust's True Site that allows customers to verify a website's authenticity.


Prospective protection against phishing…

36. Sending positive signals: New technologies like the Sender ID Framework (SIDF) are joining in the fight against spoofing websites by verifying the source of each email. In the pipeline from Microsoft and CipherTrust.

37. Not barring trust: TrustBars, which are secure and tamper-proof components of browsers, allow VISUALIZATION of information related to sites. Users are alerted by visible warnings when there is a discrepancy in the visualization on the bar.

38. Slow down those attacks: Another technique, the Delayed Password Disclosure (DPD), protests against pop-up windows that ask for sensitive details (aptly termed doppelganger window attacks) works against phishing attacks when users enter passwords letter by letter, one following the other only after a corresponding image is recognized.

39. Proof positive: Websites that wish to prove they are authentic can use HTML extensions called PROOFLETS to enhance a server's contents. These are verified by browsers through the use of special web services.


Alternative approaches…

40. Mobility in scams: As consumers are wising up to their scams, phishers are moving on to newer media to launch their scams. Mobile phones, a necessity in today's world, are the latest targets. Text messages purporting to originate from your bank warn you that unless you confirm your account information, it will be deactivated. IGNORE these messages, they are always spam.

41. Voicing doubts: Another hot sphere of activity, the VoIP technology, is being harnessed as a phishing tool with alarming regularity. The crooks find it COST-EFFECTIVE to make numerous calls and earn a sum well above the incurred expenses. This is doubly dangerous because people, who would look at an email in with suspicion, generally tend to believe phone calls.


Make a difference…

42. Join the fight: If you come across a phishing scam, REPORT it at once to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI through the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, both of whom work to shut down phishing sites and catch those responsible.

43. Say goodbye: If any of your accounts have been compromised, CLOSE them at once.

44. Change is good: If you even suspect that your any one of your passwords has gone to the wrong hands, CHANGE all your passwords and pin numbers on online accounts immediately.


Phishing is one sphere of activity where ignorance is never bliss. As long as there are gullible people around, there will be crooks to take advantage of human vulnerabilities like carelessness, laziness, greed, and ignorance. Aided and abetted by technology, these attacks are increasing by the day. A little alertness will go a long way in fighting these cybercriminals.

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