What is email identity theft? It is the stealing of personal data through the use of scam emails that lead to bogus websites that look like the real thing. Other names for this type of activity are phishing and spoofing.
Phishing (or spoofing) is one of the biggest problems on the internet today, and has lead countless numbers of people to giving their personal information away to someone with malicious intentions. In case you havent heard of it yet, here is how it works. A spoofed email is one that which appears to be sent from one source, when in fact it has originated from an entirely different source. This is done to trick you into believing that it is a legitimate email from a trusted sender.
Usually, these emails appear to come from companies that you do business with, such as your local bank, utility company, or PayPal. These official looking emails usually request your immediate attention, urging you to login to the main site to verify or update your account information. The email also contains a link for you to carry out the requested action, that will take you to a site that looks exactly like the official website. Unfortunately, it's a bogus site.
Skilled hackers build duplicates of popular web sites in order to trick you into logging in. Then, with your password, they can log into your real account and cause all sorts of mischief. For example, the most popular email identity theft scam involves duplicating PayPal. With your account information, hackers can empty your account of money, or conduct more complex scams hiding behind your identity.
In order to avoid being a victim of email identity theft, you should learn about how URLs work. Links that are contained in emails are hyperlinked to website URLs. Phishing emails will show what looks like the official URL, so you should always mouse-over the link. By putting your mouse over a link, it will display the actual URL of the link at the bottom of your browser.
On some phishing emails, the moused-over link is obviously not even close to the original site. On others, it's not so obvious that it's a bogus site. Say that the URL of the official website is YourBank.com. You should check the URL at the bottom of your browser and make sure that it says http://www.YourBank.com (the www is optional) followed by a forward slash, followed by whatever information the site requires. If it says something like YourBank.comiaj3k1.org, you can see that it is a false URL.
In addition to this basic knowledge of URLs, you can also install some sort of software that will keep an eye out for you. Modern browsers such as Mozilla Firefox 2.0 and Internet Explorer 7 have built-in phishing protection. These programs run off of a list of reported websites, and also have filters that will look for certain characteristics of the URL and alert you if it appears suspicious.
Many email and anti-virus programs also offer filtering services that will detect scam emails and put them in a special folder. It's a good idea to see if the programs you are using offer these capabilities, and if they do, you should put them to use.
If you think that the email has come from a legitimate site, but you're still worried about clicking the link, you should go to the official website by opening a new browser and typing in the official website address. As an extra precaution, look for the lock symbol at the bottom of your browser and the "https" at the beginning of the website address.
From there, you can log into your account and see if there are any updates that are needed. If there isn't, you should consider using the contact form on the official site to ask them about the questionable email and include the URL from the email. Some companies that are commonly targeted will even have a link where you can report these email identity theft attempts.
The modern internet has brought us many conveniences, from chatting online to buying groceries online. But as with anything, some people will try to take unfair advantage of the situation. So while you are enjoying the benefits of technology, you should also keep on the lookout for attempts to steal your personal information. If you get involved in a internet identity theft scam, it can be a real pain to get sorted out.
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