Fending off cyber-scammers

Written by jason cipriani
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Fending off cyber-scammers
(Getty Thinkstock)

You can probably check your spam folder right now and find out that you're related to a Nigerian prince. And by the way -- you've won the lottery -- even though you didn't enter.

The Internet is a breeding ground for scams which attempt to get your personal information and money. Often, that means phishing scams it in an e-mail, on social networks, and rogue Web site. Preventing your personal information from getting the wrong hands is easy, but you must be vigilant -- especially when receiving messages from people and companies you don't already have a relationship with.


E-mail is perhaps the most common phishing grounds. You can probably check your spam folder right now and find out that you're related to a Nigerian prince. He needs your help to move millions of pounds out of the country, of course. And by the way -- you've won the lottery -- even though you didn't enter.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of similar scams sent every day. Some include links to Web sites promising riches. Some advise you that there's "a hilarious photo of you" posted on a site. Or there are messages posing as UPS and claiming the attached file will help you track your missing package. Then there are e-mails which ask you to reply with personal information to verify your identity, when you never requested to be contacted in the first place.

If you receive an e-mail and it doesn't seem right, odds are it's not. Here are a few general tips when it comes to dealing with suspicious e-mails and potential phishing scams:

  • Never click on a link or open an attachment from an unknown sender. Always look at the actual e-mail address, not just the name of the sender, to verify who sent the e-mail.
  • Instead of following a link in an e-mail, go directly to the Web site for the company it claims to be affiliated with.
  • Most financial companies have an internal messaging system. That means if you receive an e-mail from a site like PayPal (or your bank), you'll be able to log into your account and view the same message in your account Inbox on the site. This is a simple way to verify if the e-mail is authentic.

Social networks

Almost everyone you know is active on at least one social network, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Pinterest -- just to name a few. Consequently, social networks are an easy target for the latest phishing scam.

As with e-mail, it's never a great idea to click on a link from someone you don't know. Twitter used to be the worst platform for random links. You'd tweet something with a keyword like "iPhone" and receive a dozen replies promising a free iPhone if you filled out a survey or just clicked a link. In the end, your Twitter account would be compromised, spamming your followers with direct messages promising weight loss miracles. And the cycle would repeat.

Even as I was working on this article, I received a Twitter mention from a random account with nothing but a link in the tweet. I immediately went to the account and could see it was a new account. Looking at the user's timeline all I saw were links sent to other random Twitter users with a few random tweets attempting to make the account look real. In just a few clicks I was able to see the account was a sham. If you're unsure if a link you've received is real, or from a real account, some research like this is a great way to help figure it out.

One more thing you should do is regularly go through the apps connected to your account and revoke access for anything you haven't used in the last month. These apps often have full access to your information and account, and should their database be exploited, your account will go along with it.

Do your research

Your first line of defense against a scam is your gut instinct. Do your research on a company; visit their Web site; Google the company name; use a service such as Number Guru to view if there are any complaints about the companies phone number.

Phishing scams have been around for longer than you might realise. The other day, I received a letter in the post. It was a letter addressed to me and stated that I had won a free trip for two. The company name was vaguely similar to an actual airline, giving it a hint of credibility. At the bottom was a name and phone number of who I needed to contact to claim my £1,300 prize. Of course, I didn't really win a prize: This is a form of phishing that uses the postal service.

To verify it was indeed a scam, I took to Google and searched the name of the person who signed the letter along with company name. Sure enough, a long list of complaints about being scammed showed up in the results.

It's a good idea to take your time and investigate suspicious links and e-mails. The brief time you take investigating and ensuring it's safe can save you not only time but your money and the security of your personal data.

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