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How To Detect Phishing Emails

Phishing is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money), often for malicious reasons, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. — Wikipedia

Phishing emails are getting more difficult to detect. If you have a public email address, you will be approached by the general public. Here is an example:

Intro email

The target (recipient) of this phishing attack is a real estate agent so the email contains enough information to make the email appear legitimate. This is what makes this type of attack so dangerous. Most phishing attacks are obvious, because someone is asking you for your bank account or some other information in the first email. In this case, the attacker is not asking for any information. The purpose is to engage the target in a conversation.

The person's name and English are non-native. You don't want to appear rude or xenophobic so you respond politely. The person already has your email address so you won't be giving anything away if you do so you reply. The response to your reply looks like this:

Phishing email

The attacker has the target engaged, and the response might be legitimate in the context of a real estate transaction. However, the insistence of clicking on a link from "Google Docs" is the telltale sign of phishing.

Normally, some would would attach a PDF to the email. It's unusual to share such a small file (a letter) via Google Docs or other file sharing service. The goal here is to get someone to click on the link, which is illegitimate.

Hover over links

How do you know the link is dangerous? When you hover your mouse over the link, it shows an address at the bottom of your browser window. In the image above, I've highlighted this box in red. You can see the web address is:

herdinitiative.org/herdinitiativetest/document/googledoc3/

If this were a link to Google Docs, the link would look something like:

docs.google.com/document/d/14JfWScOSTi...

Note that the first part of the address is docs.google.com. This is a safe address.

At this point, you know the link is not what you expect so you wouldn't click on it. Sometimes attackers will make fake names like docs.goog1e.com, which looks almost right. This is sometimes tricky to see so you might click on the link.

Never enter information

Let's assume you clicked on the link. This is what you'd see:

Phishing site

Now you know for sure that this is a phishing attack: the site is asking for your Google login and password.

You should never enter information on unsolicited links or from someone whom you do not know. You don't know this person, and the person sent you a link.

Verify unsolicited links and identities

Even if you get an email with an unsolicited link from someone you know, you should contact them to verify that the email was not sent from a virus. This is fairly common, and the attacks are usually obvious. However, you really never know. The important point is that the link is unexpected. If the page the link points to is asking for information, that's a big red flag.

That's probably the most important advice: links in emails should be coupled to an exchange with someone known to you. If not, just don't click.

Via Rob 07/20/16