One of the most important things you can do to stay safe on the Internet is to be careful while reading email. This can’t be stressed enough. Online criminals know that we’re all busy, and we often don’t pay enough attention to what we’re reading or where we’re clicking.
To take advantage of our inattention, these Internet information thieves send email messages to us that look like they come from Apple, Facebook, Amazon, along with well-known banks, payment services, retailers, and even government agencies. Even more dangerous are messages that appear to come from a trusted individual and include personal details—these messages are often targeted at executives and company managers. Generally speaking, these attacks are called phishing—you can see examples here.
What is their goal? To get you to click a link in the message and visit a malicious Web site. That site usually continues to look like it is being run by a company or organization you trust. At a quick glance or even upon closer inspection, these sites look legitimate, but they re not. The aim is to sucker you into revealing confidential information by asking you to log in, pay for a product or service, or fill out a survey. The site—or an attachment in the email message—might also try to install malware. Although macOS is quite secure, if you approve security prompts, it can still be infected.
Although phishing is a huge problem that costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars every year, you can easily identify phishing messages by looking for telltale signs:
- Be suspicious of email messages, particularly from people you don’t know or from well-known companies, that ask you to click a link and do something with an online account.
- Look closely at email addresses and URLs (hover the pointer over a link to see the underlying URL). Phishing messages don’t use official domains, so instead of paypal.com, the addresses and links might use paypa1.com—close enough to pass a quick glance, but clearly a fake. And again, the site the link takes you to will look like PayPal as well, even though it isn’t.
- Watch out for highly emotional or urgent requests. They’re designed to make you act without thinking. Take any such messages with a grain of salt.
- Channel your inner English teacher and look for poor grammar or odd phrasing, which are red flags for phishing messages. Email from real companies may not be perfect, but it won’t have multiple egregious errors. Most phasing emails have typos and grammatical mistakes.
So what do you do if you get a message that may be phishing for sensitive information? Most of the time you can just ignore it. If you’re worried that it might be legit, instead of clicking any links in the message, navigate to the site in question manually by typing the organization’s URL into your browser—use a URL that you know to be correct, not the one in the email message. Whatever you do, do not open attachments that you aren’t expecting and never send confidential information via email.
If you think you’ve fallen prey to a phishing attack and given away a password, you’ll want to change passwords on any affected accounts. If you’ve opened any attachments or approved any installs, run anti-malware software to determine whether your Mac has been infected. And remember, regular backups protect you from a multitude of sins.