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How to Recognize and Avoid Phishing Scams

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How to Recognize and Avoid Phishing Scams

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Scammers use email or text messages to try to steal your passwords, account numbers or Social Security numbers. If they get that information, they could get access to your email, bank or other accounts. Or they could sell your information to other scammers. Scammers launch thousands of phishing attacks like these every day – and they’re often successful.

Scammers often update their tactics to keep up with the latest news or trends, but here are some common tactics used in phishing emails or text messages:

Phishing emails and text messages often tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. You might get an unexpected email or text message that looks like it’s from a company you know or trust, like a bank, credit card or utility company. Or maybe it’s from an online payment website or app. The message could be from a scammer, who might:

  • say they’ve noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts – they haven’t
  • claim there’s a problem with your account or your payment information – there isn’t
  • say you need to confirm some personal or financial information – you don’t
  • include an invoice you don’t recognize – it’s fake
  • want you to click on a link to make a payment – but the link has malware
  • say you’re eligible to register for a government refund – it’s a scam
  • offer a coupon for free stuff – it’s not real

Here are signs an email is a scam, even though it looks like it comes from a company you know – and even uses the company’s logo in the header:

  • The email has a generic greeting
  • The email says your account is on hold because of a billing problem
  • The email invites you to click on a link to update your payment details

While real companies might communicate with you by email, legitimate companies won’t email or text with a link to update your payment information. Phishing emails can often have real consequences for people who give scammers their information, including identity theft. They also might harm the reputation of the companies they’re spoofing.

How to protect yourself from phishing attacks

Your email spam filters might keep many phishing emails out of your inbox, but scammers are always trying to outsmart spam filters. So, extra layers of protection can help. Here are four ways to protect yourself from phishing attacks.

ways to protect yourself
Protect your computer by using security software

Set the software to update automatically so it’ll deal with any new security threats.

Protect your cellphone by setting software to update automatically

These updates could give you critical protection against security threats.

Protect your accounts by using multi-factor authentication

Some accounts offer extra security by requiring two or more credentials to log in to your account. This is called multi-factor authentication. The extra credentials you need to log in to your account fall into three categories:

  • something you know — like a passcode, a PIN or the answer to a security question
  • something you have — like a one-time verification passcode you get by text, email or from an authenticator app, or a security key
  • something you are — like a scan of your fingerprint, your retina or your face

Multi-factor authentication makes it harder for scammers to log in to your accounts if they do get your username and password.

Protect your data by backing it up

Back up the data on your computer to an external hard drive or in the cloud. Back up the data on your phone, too.

What to do if you suspect a phishing attack

If you get an email or a text message asking you to click on a link or open an attachment, answer this question:

Do I have an account with the company or know the person who contacted me?

  • If the answer is “No,” it could be a phishing scam. Go back and review the advice above and look for signs of a phishing scam. If you see them, report the message and then delete it.
  • If the answer is “Yes,” contact the company using a phone number or website you know is real – not the information in the email. Attachments and links might install harmful malware.

What to do if you responded to a phishing email

If you think a scammer has your information, like your Social Security, credit card, or bank account number, go to IdentityTheft.gov. There you’ll see the specific steps to take based on the information you lost.

If you think you clicked on a link or opened an attachment that downloaded harmful software, update your computer’s security software. Then run a scan and remove anything it identifies as a problem.

How to report phishing

If you got a phishing email or text message, report it. The information you give helps fight scammers.

  • If you got a phishing email, forward it to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at ReportPhishing@apwg.org
  • If you got a phishing text message, forward it to SPAM (7726)
  • Report the phishing attempt to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov