How to Protect Yourself From Phishing Scams

Ping, it’s a scammer! 

The sound of an incoming email, text, or direct message has a way of getting your attention, so you take a look and see what’s up. It happens umpteen times a week, to the extent that it feels like the flow of your day. And scammers want to tap into that with sneaky phishing attacks that catch you off guard, all with the aim of stealing your personal information or bilking you out of your money.  

Phishing attacks take several forms, where scammers masquerade as a legitimate company, financial institution, government agency, or even as someone you know. And they’ll come after you with messages that follow suit: 

  • “You have a package coming to you, but we’re having a problem with delivering it. Please click here to provide delivery information receive your package.” 
  • “We spotted what may be unusual activity on your credit card. Follow this link to confirm your account information.” 
  • “You owe back taxes. Send payment immediately using this link or we will refer your case to law enforcement.” 

You can see why phishing attacks can be so effective. Messages like these have an urgency to them, and they seem like they’re legit, or they at least seem like they might deal with something you might care about. But of course they’re just a ruse. And some of them can look and sound rather convincing. Or at least convincing enough that you’ll not only give them a look, but that you’ll also give them a click too. 

And that’s where the troubles start. Clicking the links or attachments sent in a phishing attack can lead to several potentially nasty things, such as: 

  • A phony login page where they scammer tries to steal account credentials from you. 
  • A malware download that can install keylogging software for stealing passwords and other information as you type. 
  • Spyware that hijacks information on your device and secretly sends it back to the scammer. 
  • Ransomware that holds a device and its data hostage until a fee is paid. (By the way, never pay off a ransomware threat. There’s no guarantee that payment will release your device and data back to you.) 

However, plenty of phishing attacks are preventable. A mix of knowing what to look for and putting a few security steps in place can help you keep scammers at bay. 

What do phishing attacks look like? 

How you end up with one has a lot to do with it.  

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen your share of phishing attempts on your phone. A text comes through with a brief message that one of your accounts needs attention, from an entirely unknown number. Along with it is a link that you can tap to follow up, which will send you to a malicious site. In some cases, the sender may skip the link and attempt to start a conversation with the aim of getting you to share your personal information or possibly fork over some payment with a gift card, money order, rechargeable debit card, or other form of payment that is difficult to trace and recover. 

In the case of social media, you can expect that the attack will come from an imposter account that’s doing its best to pose as one of those legitimate businesses or organizations we talked about, or perhaps as a stranger or even someone you know. And the name and profile pic will do its best to play the part. If you click on the account that sent it, you may see that it was created only recently and that it has few to no followers, both of which are red flags. The attack is typically conversational, much like described above where the scammer attempts to pump you for personal info or money. 

Attacks that come by direct messaging apps will work much in the same way. The scammer will set up a phony account, and where the app allows, a phony name and a phony profile pic to go along with it. 

Email gets a little more complicated because emails can range anywhere from a few simple lines of text to a fully designed piece complete with images, formatting, and embedded links—much like a miniature web page.  

In the past, email phishing attacks looked rather unsophisticated, rife with poor spelling and grammar, along with sloppy-looking layouts and images. That’s still sometimes the case today. Yet not always. Some phishing emails look like the real thing. Or nearly so. 

Examples of phishing attacks  

Case in point, here’s a look at a phishing email masquerading as a McAfee email:

There’s a lot going on here. The scammers try to mimic the McAfee brand, yet don’t quite pull it off. Still, they do several things to try and be convincing.  

Note the use of photography and the box shot of our software, paired with a prominent “act now” headline. It’s not the style of photography we use. Not that people would generally know this. However, some might have a passing thought like, “Huh. That doesn’t really look right for some reason.”  

Beyond that, there are a few capitalization errors, some misplaced punctuation, plus the “order now” and “60% off” icons look rather slapped on. Also note the little dash of fear it throws in at the top of the email with mention of “There are (42) viruses on your computer.”  

Taken all together, you can spot many email scams by taking a closer look, seeing what doesn’t feel right, and then trusting you gut. But that asks you to slow down, take a moment, and eyeball the email critically. Which people don’t always do. And that’s what scammers count on. 

Similar ploys see scammers pose as legitimate companies and retailers, where they either ask you to log into a bogus account page to check statement or the status of an order. Some scammers offer links to “discount codes” that are instead links to landing pages designed steal your account login information as well. Similarly, they may simply send a malicious email attachment with the hope that you’ll click it. 

In other forms of email phishing attacks, scammers may pose as a co-worker, business associate, vendor, or partner to get the victim to click a malicious link or download malicious software. These may include a link to a bogus invoice, spreadsheet, notetaking file, or word processing doc—just about anything that looks like it could be a piece of business correspondence. Instead, the link leads to a scam website that asks the victim “log in and download” the document, which steals account info as a result. Scammers may also include attachments to phishing emails that can install malware directly on the device, sometimes by infecting an otherwise everyday document with a malicious payload. 

Email scammers may also pose as someone you know, whether by propping up an imposter email account or by outright hijacking an existing account. The attack follows the same playbook, using a link or an attachment to steal personal info, request funds, or install malware. 

How to avoid phishing attacks 

While you can’t outright stop phishing attacks from making their way to your computer or phone, you can do several things to keep yourself from falling to them. Further, you can do other things that may make it more difficult for scammers to reach you. 

1. Pause and think about the message for a minute. 

The content and the tone of the message can tell you quite a lot. Threatening messages or ones that play on fear are often phishing attacks, such angry messages from a so-called tax agent looking to collect back taxes. Other messages will lean heavy on urgency, like the phony McAfee phishing email above that says your license has expired today and that you have “(42)” viruses. And during the holidays, watch out for loud, overexcited messages about deep discounts on hard-to-find items. Instead of linking you off to a proper ecommerce site, they may link you to a scam shopping site that does nothing but steal your money and the account information you used to pay them. In all, phishing attacks indeed smell fishy. Slow down and review that message with a critical eye. It may tip you off to a scam. 

2. Deal directly with the company or organization in question. 

Some phishing attacks can look rather convincing. So much so that you’ll want to follow up on them, like if your bank reports irregular activity on your account or a bill appears to be past due. In these cases, don’t click on the link in the message. Go straight to the website of the business or organization in question and access your account from there. Likewise, if you have questions, you can always reach out to their customer service number or web page. 

3. Consider the source. 

When scammers contact you via social media, that in of itself can be a tell-tale sign of a scam. Consider, would an income tax collector contact you over social media? The answer there is no. For example, in the U.S. the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) makes it quite clear that they will never contact taxpayers via social media. (Let alone send angry, threatening messages.) In all, legitimate businesses and organizations don’t use social media as a channel for official communications. They have accepted ways they will, and will not, contact you. If you have any doubts about a communication you received, contact the business or organization in question directly and follow up with one of their customer service representatives.  

4. Don’t download attachments. And most certainly don’t open them. 

Some phishing attacks involve attachments packed with malware like the ransomware, viruses, and keyloggers we mentioned earlier. If you receive a message with such an attachment, delete it. Even if you receive an email with an attachment from someone you know, follow up with that person. Particularly if you weren’t expecting an attachment from them. Scammers will often hijack or spoof email accounts of everyday people to spread malware. 

5. Hover over links to verify the URL. 

On computers and laptops, you can hover your cursor over links without clicking on them to see the web address. Take a close look at the addresses the message is using. If it’s an email, look at the email address. Maybe the address doesn’t match the company or organization at all. Or maybe it looks like it almost does, yet it adds a few letters or words to the name. This marks yet another sign that you may have a phishing attack on your hands. Scammers also use the common tactic of a link shortener, which creates links that almost look like strings of indecipherable text. These shortened links mask the true address, which may indeed be a link to scam site. Delete the message. If possible, report it. Many social media platforms and messaging apps have built-in controls for reporting suspicious accounts and messages. 

6. Go with who you know. 

On social media and messaging platforms, stick to following, friending, and messaging people who you really know. As for those people who contact you out of the blue, be suspicious. Sad to say, they’re often scammers canvassing these platforms for victims. Better yet, where you can, set your profile to private, which makes it more difficult for scammers select and stalk you for an attack. 

7. Remove your personal information from sketchy data broker sites. 

How’d that scammer get your phone number or email address anyway? Chances are, they pulled that information off a data broker site. Data brokers buy, collect, and sell detailed personal information, which they compile from several public and private sources, such as local, state, and federal records, plus third parties like supermarket shopper’s cards and mobile apps that share and sell user data. Moreover, they’ll sell it to anyone who pays for it, including people who’ll use that information for scams. You can help reduce those scam texts and calls by removing your information from those sites. Our Personal Data Cleanup scans some of the riskiest data broker sites and shows you which ones are selling your personal info.  

8. Use online protection software. 

Online protection software can protect you in several ways. First, it can offer safe browsing features that can identify malicious links and downloads, which can help prevent clicking them. Further, it can steer you away from dangerous websites and block malware and phishing sites if you accidentally click on a malicious link. And overall, strong virus and malware protection can further block any attacks on your devices. Be sure to protect your smartphones in addition to your computers and laptops as well, particularly given all the sensitive things we do on them, like banking, shopping, and booking rides and travel. 

What is phishing? Now you know, and how you can avoid it. 

Once phishing attacks were largely the domain of bogus emails, yet now they’ve spread to texts, social media, and messaging apps—anywhere a scammer can send a fraudulent message while posing as a reputable source. 

Scammers count on you taking the bait, the immediate feelings of fear or concern that there’s a problem with your taxes or one of your accounts. They also prey on scarcity, like during the holidays where people search for great deals on gifts and have plenty of packages on the move. With a critical eye, you can often spot those scams. Sometimes, a pause and a little thought is all it takes. You can stay one step ahead of scammers with the power of AI, our new McAfee Scam Protection can alert you when scam texts pop up on your device or phone. Removing the guessing and it can block risky sites if you accidentally follow a scam link in a text, email, social media, and more. And in the cases where a particularly cagey attack makes its way through, online protection software can warn you that the link you’re about to click is indeed a trap.  

Taken all together, you have plenty of ways you can beat scammers at their game. 

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