Information and guidance for Colgate students, faculty, and staff to remain secure from Phishing email attacks.

What is a Phishing Attack?

A phishing attack is a method used by criminal hackers to dupe their victims into giving up their credentials or other information in order to gain unauthorized access to their account(s) and take over their identity and/or finances.

Phishing emails are not merely annoyances like spam, they are real threats to your privacy and online security.

Of the myriad ways criminals try to steal online identities, phishing is the most common. Most phishing attacks begin with a user receiving an unsolicited email that appears to come from their company's IT department or service desk, a shipping courier, a government agency, a bank or some other financial institution, or any high-profile company with which one might do business. These emails are known as phishing emails. Phishing attacks; however, can also begin with an unsolicited phone call, text message, fax or even a flyer.

Some phishing emails are designed to trick you into clicking on a link which leads to your computer getting infected with malware - malware designed to watch your keystrokes and grab passwords or install "back doors" which hackers then use to take control of your computer. They then use your computer to hack in to systems and servers on your network and beyond. This is important to remember as even just clicking a link within a phishing email can have bad consequences.

Phishing attacks are designed to take advantage of their victims through manipulation — often through fear. The emails are made to look legitimate to make you trust the information. The subject is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, triggering you to take action to "correct" the situation.

Examples

Screenshot of an example of a phishing email

In this example, we see the classic e-mail that looks like it comes from a service desk asking for your username and password in order to ensure your account is not turned off. This is quite common. Often, the subject line is something akin to, "Warning! E-mail Quota Limit" or something similar. The e-mails often threaten, "permanent deletion," or "infection!!!" 

It is important to remember that most legitimate organizations do not e-mail you asking you to click a link and enter your username and password in order to keep you e-mail flowing. While some organizations do practice this type of contact with their end users, they go to great strides to use proper English and a common template. Either way, always, always be weary of links embedded in an e-mail especially when the e-mail is unsolicited. As you see in this e-mail below, you can tell it is a phishing attempt by hovering your mouse over the "CLICK HERE" link. Notice (in the bottom image) how the link goes to some place other than colgate.edu?

Try it. Hover your mouse (don't click) over this link, http://www.yourbank.com. Notice what it says in the bottom-left of your browser? Creating links in an e-mail like this is trivial to the common criminal hacker.

Screenshot of a shipping fraud phishing email

In this example, notice the e-mail looks like it came from usps.com. The body of the message even looks like an e-mail you might get concerning a legitimate shipping transaction.

Once again, if you were to hover over the links in the actual e-mail, you'd notice the what the link says and where it points are not the same place destination.

How to Spot a Phishing E-mail

As seen in the examples above, one of the ways you can spot a phishing e-mail is to hover over the links in the message (don't click) and see if the actual destination matches the text displayed in the body of the e-mail. Here are more things to consider when determining if the e-mail you received is legitimate:

  1. Did the e-mail come to you unsolicited?
  2. Is the sender a stranger to you?
  3. Is the sender's e-mail address domain different from the company's web site?
  4. Is the link in the e-mail different from the organization it claims to be?
  5. Does the e-mail claim to be from a service desk and talk about account "quotas"?
  6. Does the e-mail claim to be from a service desk and talk about infections?
  7. Does the e-mail claim to be from a law enforcement agency?
  8. Is the e-mail from an online shopping site you never use or haven't used lately?
  9. Does the "To:" field in the e-mail list hundreds of names and e-mail addresses?
  10. Does the e-mail sound threatening in any way, especially legally or financially?
  11. Does the sender of the e-mail use poor grammar?
  12. Does the link go to (example) "colgate.webs.com"? (not colgate.edu)
  13. Does the link say, "c0lgate.com" instead of colgate.edu?
  14. Is the e-mail from an individual's e-mail address instead of an official account?
  15. Is it tax season?
  16. Is it a holiday season?
  17. Has there been a major tragedy in the news lately?
  18. Did you receive the e-mail early in the morning or late at night (after hours)?

If you can answer yes to any one (or more) of these questions, the e-mail may be a phishing attempt. Phishers like to use "scare" tactics as well as humanitarian needs to dupe their victims into clicking their links and providing their information. They often try hard to make the e-mail look legit and avoid sending their e-mails during normal business hours. 

Recognizing a Real Email Alert from ITS

ITS will send you actual alerts from time-to-time. These alerts:

  • Follow a specific pattern
  • Come from designated senders and accounts
  • Never threaten to shut off your account
  • Never send you to sites to "verify" your account credentials.

Emails from ITS will always come from one of the following accounts:

  • ITSAlerts@colgate.edu
  • ITSComms@colgate.edu
  • ITSInfo@colgate.edu
  • broadcast@colgate.edu

Protect Yourself

Protecting oneself from a phishing attack is not complicated; however, as phishing e-mails become more sophisticated, it becomes the potential to become a victim is greater. Here are some tips to avoid becoming a victim, steps you can take that would minimize the damage if you do, and steps you should take if you do fall victim to a phishing scam.

There are many ways to avoid becoming a victim of phishing and to prevent its propagation.

  • Be skeptical and vigilant. Ask yourself the questions listed above when reading your e-mails.
  • Turn on spam filtering. While this won't catch all phishing e-mails, it will catch some.
  • Never click the links in any unknown, unsolicited e-mail, ever.
  • Install and use antivirus software on your computer that scans incoming e-mails.
  • Always keep your computer, its browsers, plug-ins and antivirus up-to-date.
  • Report incidents to ITS and/or the real institution portrayed in the e-mail.
  • Send phishing e-mails to your Spam folder by following these instructions from Google.

There are many things you can do to minimize the impact of a phishing scam should you become a victim.

  1. Don't use your business e-mail for personal use.
  2. Never send passwords, credit card, bank account, or social security numbers in an e-mail, ever.
  3. Change your passwords often and never use the same password on different accounts.
  4. Purge your inbox on occasion.
  5. Don't use e-mail for sensitive conversations.
  6. Report incidents immediately.

Even if you just clicked the link and didn't give-out your credentials, you should do the following. The link may have installed malware that collects your information as you type.

  • Report the incident to ITS immediately.
  • Report the incident to the real institution ASAP.
  • Run a virus scan on your computer (yes, even on a Mac).
  • On a clean computer, change your password(s) on all your accounts.
  • If your bank account may be compromised, enroll in a credit monitoring service.
  • Watch for suspicious activity in all your online accounts.

Ask for Help

If you are unable to find the information you need in the documentation available online, the ITS Service Desk is available to assist.