Why Can’t We Stop Pfishing?

During my employee orientation at America Online in 1997, that day-long tradition of assaulting new hires with mundane and mind-numbing facts that are immediately forgotten, I was warned that AOL employees were constantly under threat of phishing attacks, though they weren’t called that, and I admit that I didn’t really understand the explanation.

By close of business the following day I had developed a full appreciation of the threat because I had unwisely clicked on a link in an Instant Message and unwittingly handed my employee login credentials to a hacker, something I had been told not to do just hours before. IT’s “clean-up” process took two days, though I suspect that was a form of punishment, and during that time I wore the scarlet letter of being cut off from the rest of the company that functioned entirely around AOL Mail and Instant Messaging.

What a dunce. Lesson learned.

AOL finally put a huge dent in the phishing attacks by
implementing two-factor authentication (2FA) for all employees, as I
described in those previous posts, except that in 1997 we used hardware
tokens because there were no smartphones.

Having dedicated my last two posts, You’re Responsible for Your Own Online Security and How to Secure Your Online Financial Accounts, to securing online financial accounts, I realize my retirement finance blog has taken on a computer-geek air of late. My rationale is that retirement finance is primarily about dealing with risk and cyber security is a huge component of financial risk.

Malwarebytes.com describes phishing attacks as follows.

Phishing is the crime of deceiving people into sharing sensitive information like passwords and credit card numbers. As with real fishing, there’s more than one way to reel in a victim, but one phishing tactic is the most common. Victims receive a malicious email (malspam) or a text message that imitates (or “spoofs”) a person or organization they trust, like a coworker, a bank, or a government office. When the victim opens the email or text, they find a scary message meant to overcome their better judgment by filling them with fear. The message demands that the victim go to a website and take immediate action or risk some sort of consequence.”

The term “phish” comes from fishing. A hacker dangles some bait in front of you in the form of a disguised hyperlink in an email or text message and hopes you will click on it hook, line and sinker.

Phishing attacks can be implemented with text messages, email, or even phone calls. It is actually a “social engineering” attack because rather than relying on technology to steal your vital information, it relies on you giving away that information in a moment of fear, confusion or just complacency.

Some people provide their sensitive information over the phone in spite of knowing that no bank, brokerage or government office like the Social Security Administration is going to call, text or email you and ask for your login credentials. The IRS does not announce an audit in an email.

Others click on a hyperlink in an email or text message because they believe they know the sender or because the link looks familiar or harmless. It isn’t difficult for a hacker to change an email sender’s address, using an attack known as “spoofing.” You cannot trust an email’s source simply by looking at the sender’s email address or a phone call’s source by checking Caller ID.

A lot of people who should know better get hacked by phishing attacks. It’s a highly effective strategy.

Cyber security firm, CSO, lists three infamous phishing attacks.

  • Perhaps one of the most consequential phishing attacks in history happened in 2016 when hackers managed to get Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta to offer up his Gmail password. 

  • The “fappening” attack, in which intimate photos of a number of celebrities were made public, was originally thought to be a result of insecurity on Apple’s iCloud servers, but was in fact the product of a number of successful phishing attempts.
  • In 2016, employees at the University of Kansas responded to a phishing email and handed over access to their paycheck deposit information, resulting in them losing pay.

The Clinton Campaign phishing hack may have helped decide a presidential election.

(Note to political parties: Why are you sending unencrypted sensitive information over email systems like GMail when you can create a free, encrypted account at CERN’s Proton Mail or spend a few bucks to encrypt your own mail server? More importantly, why are you saying things in an email that you wouldn’t want the world to share? Emails never die. Your stupidity will be on the web forever. This is not the way you want to go viral.)

My goal is to help you protect yourself and your wealth from phishing attacks (if political organizations haven’t figured out how by now then I have little hope for them in cyberspace).

Because phishing attacks are social engineering attacks that depend on tricking you, your diligence is the best protective measure. Think twice — no, make that three times — before you click on any link in an email or text message.

Check the context. My friend, Lex, send me lots of emails, text messages and messaging app thoughts. I normally click on all of his links but when I recently received an email from him that contained nothing but a hyperlink, I deleted it. It would be very unusual for Lex to send me a link with no explanation.

Needing no further clues, I checked the email’s CC list and noticed it was quite long and included no one that I know. Not a confidence-building sign.

If I have any doubt that a link I receive is not legitimate, I will contact the sender and ask if the email or message was really from them but it is critical to contact them through a different channel and not by replying to the message. If the link really is phish, then replying may simply be me asking the hacker if he is legit. He’ll probably say yes. If the link arrives in an email, for example, call or text the sender, instead.

When I receive an email or text message regarding the status of a credit card account,  I visit the card’s website without clicking on the link.

It’s quite easy to make a link look like a legitimate website when it actually points to a hacker’s own malicious website. It’s also quite easy to make that website look like Chase Bank’s website, for example, and encourage you to “login” at the fake website and thereby hand your login credentials to the hacker.

Most email systems and websites allow you to view the actual link by hovering your mouse over the hyperlink. The underlying link will appear. Read the actual link closely to detect small changes that indicate you might not land where you expected.

You may find, for example, that a link that appears to point to theRetirementCafe.com (my website) actually points to theRetirmentCafe.com, which could belong to anyone. Notice the subtle misspelling. Hover your mouse over each of these links and, depending on your browser, the actual destination hyperlink will show up somewhere on your screen.

Some anti-virus and anti-malware software also incorporates anti-phishing features. Check your software’s website to know for sure. Still, it won’t replace your own diligence in examining hyperlinks sent to you before clicking on them.

Why are phishing attacks still so successful though we’ve been exposed to them since the late 1990s? They prey on our fear, complacency, and familiarity. It should be really easy to always say, “I’m not 100% sure this is a legitimate link so I’m just not going to click it” or “no legitimate business would ask me to provide sensitive information through an email or a phone call,” yet it remains a successful hacking strategy.

One last question you might ask yourself is what would happen if I don’t click this link? If it is important, the sender will surely try other ways to reach you, even if it’s a friend just making sure that you saw the link she sent to her latest baby pictures.

Phishing attacks aren’t the only cyber threat to your wealth but they are one of the most common and they are very effective. The best way to protect yourself is to treat any link sent to you as a potential threat. Never click on them without stopping to think about possible bad outcomes. Err on the side of avoiding the pfisher. If you’re not certain, don’t click.

 


Originally posted at http://www.theretirementcafe.com/2019/08/why-cant-we-stop-pfishing.html

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