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Phishing: The basics

CSO Staff | July 10, 2017
Phishing is a method of trying to gather personal information using deceptive e-mails and websites. Typically, a phisher sends an e-mail disguised as a legitimate business request. Because the best defense is a skeptical user, here's how to be on your guard against phishing.

Although the concept is straightforward, implementation has been slow because the major Internet players have different ideas about how to tackle the problem. It may be years before different groups iron out the details and implement a standard. Even then, there's no way of guaranteeing that phishers won't find ways around the system (just as some fraudsters can fake the numbers that appear in caller IDs). That's why, in the meantime, so many organizations—and a growing marketplace of service providers—have taken matters into their own hands.


How can companies reduce the chance of being targeted by a phishing attack?

In part, the answer has to do with NOT doing silly or thoughtless things that can increase your vulnerability. Now that phishing has become a fact of life, companies need to be careful about how they use e-mail to communicate with customers. For example, in May 2004, Wachovia's phones started ringing off the hook after the bank sent customers an e-mail instructing them to update their online banking user names and passwords by clicking on a link. Although the e-mail was legitimate (the bank had to migrate customers to a new system following a merger), a quarter of the recipients questioned it.

As Wachovia learned, companies need to clearly think through their customer communication protocols. Best practices include giving all e-mails and webpages a consistent look and feel, greeting customers by first and last name in e-mails, and never asking for personal or account data through e-mail. If any time-sensitive personal information is sent through e-mail, it has to be encrypted. Marketers may wring their hands at the prospect of not sending customers links that would take them directly to targeted offers, but instructing customers to bookmark key pages or linking to special offers from the homepage is a lot more secure. That way, companies are training their customers not to be duped.

It also makes sense to revisit what customers are allowed to do on your website. They should not be able to open a new account, sign up for a credit card or change their address online with just a password. At a minimum, companies should acknowledge every online transaction through e-mail and one other method of the customer's choosing (such as calling the phone number on record) so that customers are aware of all online activity on their accounts. And to make it more difficult for phishers to copy online data-capture forms, organizations should avoid putting them on the website for all to see. Instead, organizations should require a secured log-in to access e-commerce forms.

At the end of the day, though, better authentication is the best way to decrease the likelihood that phishers will target your organization. 


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