By Cathryn Conroy
Spam is annoying, but phishing is dangerous. E-mail phishing scams have one purpose: theft.
What is a phishing scam? It's an e-mail sent to you and hundreds of thousands of others with a message that tries to trick you into revealing sensitive personal information, such as passwords, banking information, your Social Security number, your mother's maiden name, your date of birth and more. The attack is waged against you in an attempt to hijack your assets, steal your identity or even open credit card accounts in your name.
The plea in the e-mail may try to warn you of a danger, offer you something for free or entice you with sexy or nude photos or videos of famous people. As phishers become smarter, they are creating more believable scenarios. No matter the ploy, they all have one thing in common: They want you to click on a link or download a file. Don't do it!
Savvy users learn how to spot the e-mail messages sent by phishers and scammers. While some of them are tough to weed out, almost all of them will contain one or more clues that it's a scam. You just have to know the clues.
Top 5 clues for spotting an e-mail scam:
Clue No. 1: Check the spelling
Scammers are notorious for their lack of basic spelling and grammar skills. Look for misspelled words and incomplete or awkwardly written sentences. It's not uncommon for a scam e-mail that is purportedly from a reputable and well known organization to misspell the name of that organization! For example, an e-mail scam aimed at Facebook users, spelled Facebook this way: facebook.
Clue No. 2: Who signed it?
If it's a legitimate e-mail from a business, it will be signed with a person's name and contact information, but if it signs off with something vague, such as "Customer Support," be wary.
Clue No. 3: DOES THE E-MAIL SCREAM AT YOU IN ALL CAPS?
Be especially aware of e-mails that try to get your attention by using all capital letters, especially in the subject line. Using all caps has long been viewed as online shouting. It just isn't done. The authors of scam e-mails tend to write prose that is over-the-top and very emotional. In addition to a lot of capital letters, look for an excess of exclamation points and dire warnings, such as "Urgent!" or "Danger!"
Clue No. 4: The e-mail has an executable attachment
Phishers can only scam you if you let them. And you do just that if you download e-mail attachments, which can contain computer viruses. Since a favorite way to send a scam e-mail is by making it look as if it were sent to you by someone in your e-mail address book, don't be fooled by the sender's name. Never download an attachment unless you are sure it's legitimate.
Clue No. 5: The e-mail has a link to a Web site
As more people have learned they shouldn't download attachments from strangers, scammers have caught on. Instead of attaching a file, they include a clickable link to a Web site. Click on that link, and you might be asked to provide personal information. Do it, and you've been scammed. For example, you might receive an e-mail that appears to be from your bank, offering you a very low interest rate on a mortgage or home equity loan. If you click on the link, it could ask your name, bank account number and online banking password to get onto the site. Don't ever provide this information if you got on the site by clicking a link in an e-mail.
One final word of advice: Never, ever respond to a spam e-mail. By doing so you confirm your e-mail account is active, and you'll likely be inundated with more spam.