As recently as 20 years ago, the best advice about using the Internet was „Don’t trust anyone.” In the meantime, we are looking for apartments abroad on the internet and booking carpools with complete strangers using our smartphones.
In fact, we now have far more trust in strangers than we used to. But this is exactly what cybercriminals rely on when attempting phishing. If you want to debunk these cyber threats before they can do any real damage, you have to think like the scammers.
But at least you should know what to look out for.
These five warning signs can help you identify phishing messages:
- It contains spelling and grammatical errors.
- The sender’s email address makes a dubious impression.
- You received an attachment from someone you don’t know.
- A link leads to a different URL than intended.
- The email seems unusually urgent.
Below we take a closer look at each warning sign and explain why it is so important to recognize them.
1. It contains spelling and grammatical errors
In e-mails and advertisements of companies one finds no spelling errors in the rule. This is because entire teams and departments ensure that their official communications are correct and free of spelling and grammatical errors.
Phishers do not have comparable resources and that shows in their communication. Phishing messages are often teeming with misspellings and confusing grammar. The busier a cybercriminal, the more sloppy his emails are usually worded.
Bad spelling and grammar are therefore usually a sure sign of a phishing email. But of course that’s not the only clue. Otherwise you would have to ignore every message from friends who have not refreshed their German lately.
2. The sender’s email address gives a dubious impression
We’re more likely to think email is genuine if it looks official and comes from a well-known company with whom we do business. However, cyber criminals abuse this blind trust to pretend that an email is an official message from a company.
Some use a similar website URL – such as Google or Netflix – as their email domain to make them appear legitimate. Others use a Gmail or Yahoo address and pretend to be customer service from your phone company.
These misspelled, illegitimate e-mail addresses are not easy to spot, but they are a crucial clue to identify cyber threats in good time. If your account has actually been suspended or there is a really urgent matter, the 20 seconds it takes you to verify the email address won’t make any difference.
3. You received an attachment from someone you don’t know
Attachments are something like the holy grail of cybercrime. If you receive an attachment from someone you don’t know, it is a clear indicator of a potential phishing attempt – or a cyber threat in general. A surprising number of people click on such attachments to open or download them before realizing that they don’t even know the sender – or have caught a virus.
Phishers use attachments to smuggle in malware that can be used for various purposes. For example, it could be a keylogger that records your login details or a virus that was programmed to access your bank details. The only thing that is certain is that these attachments do not contain anything of use to you.
Always be careful when you receive an email with an attachment – especially if you don’t know the sender. Make sure basically that the e-mail address is unquestionably suggests a trusted source before opening files attached to an e-mail.
4. A link leads to a different URL than intended
Cyber criminals know many tricks to obscure the real purpose of an email. By embedding links in visual elements such as friendly-looking buttons, for example, they distract from their true destination.
Even if you trust the sender, it’s always a good idea to hover your cursor over a URL before clicking on it. Depending on the email provider, a field will appear next to the cursor or in the lower left corner of the screen that shows which website the URL leads to.
If the email appears to be from your Netflix account and the URL points to a website you’ve never heard of before, stay away from the link. When you log into the Netflix homepage, you will likely find that everything is fine with your account.
5. The email seems unusually urgent
Scare tactics are cybercriminals' best friends because it tarnishes the decision-making and judgment that could thwart their plans. This tactic is increasingly used in phishing campaigns.
Pressure to act can be created in different ways. Some scammers pretend that your account has been banned or hijacked. Basically, however, it is a characteristic of a phishing email that it tries to put pressure on you to act by pretending to be a problem. Watch out for time-sensitive instructions that may indicate that you have been the target of a phishing attempt.