“The spear phisher thrives on familiarity. He knows your name, your email address, and at least a little about you.”



Introduction

The latest twist on phishing is spear phishing. No, it's not a sport, it's a scam and you're the target. Spear phishing is an email that appears to be from an individual or business that you know. But it isn't. It's from the same criminal hackers who want your credit card and bank account numbers, passwords, and the financial information on your PC. Learn how to protect yourself.

Email from a "Friend"

The spear phisher thrives on familiarity. He knows your name, your email address, and at least a little about you. The salutation on the email message is likely to be personalized: "Hi Bob" instead of "Dear Sir." The email may make reference to a "mutual friend." Or to a recent online purchase you've made. Because the email seems to come from someone you know, you may be less vigilant and give them the information they ask for. And when it's a company you know asking for urgent action, you may be tempted to act before thinking.

Using Your Web Presence Against You

How do you become a target of a spear phisher? From the information you put on the Internet from your PC or smartphone. For example, they might scan social networking sites, find your page, your email address, your friends list, and a recent post by you telling friends about the cool new camera you bought at an online retail site. Using that information, a spear phisher could pose as a friend, send you an email, and ask you for a password to your photo page. If you respond with the password, they'll try that password and variations to try to access your account on that online retail site you mentioned. If they find the right one, they'll use it to run up a nice tab for you. Or the spear phisher might use the same information to pose as somebody from the online retailer and ask you to reset your password, or re-verify your credit card number. If you do, he'll do you financial harm.

Keep Your Secrets Secret

How safe you and your information remain depends in part on you being careful. Take a look at your online presence. How much information is out there about you that could be pieced together to scam you? Your name? Email address? Friends' names? Their email addresses? Are you on, for example, any of the popular social networking sites? Take a look at your posts. Anything there you don't want a scammer to know? Or have you posted something on a friend's page that might reveal too much?

Passwords That Work

Think about your passwords. Do you use just one or easy to figure out variations on just one? If you do either, you shouldn't, because you're making it easy for a scammer to get access to your personal financial information. Every password for every site you visit should be different, really different. Random letters and numbers work best. Change them frequently. Your Internet security software and operating system can help you keep track of your passwords.

Patches, Updates, and Security Software

When you get notices from software vendors to update your software, do it. Most operating system and browser updates include security patches. Your name and email address may be all it takes for a hacker to slip through a security hole into your system. And it almost goes without saying, you should be protected by Internet security software, and it should always be up to date.

Be Smart

If a "friend" emails and asks for a password or other information, call or email (in a separate email) that friend to verify that they were really who contacted you. The same goes for banks and businesses. First of all, legitimate businesses won't email you asking for passwords or account numbers. If you think the email might be real, call the bank or business and ask. Or visit the official website. Most banks have an email address to which you can forward suspicious emails for verification.

And always remember: Don't give up too much personal information online, because you never know who might use it against you. Or how.