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Phishing: The basics

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Phishing is a method of trying to gather personal information using deceptive e-mails and websites. Typically, a phisher sends an e-mail disguised as a legitimate business request. For example, the phisher may pass himself off as a real bank asking its customers to verify financial data. (So phishing is a form of “social engineering”.) The e-mail is often forged so that it appears to come from a real e-mail address used for legitimate company business, and it usually includes a link to a website that looks exactly like the bank’s website. However, the site is bogus, and when the victim types in passwords or other sensitive information, that data is captured by the phisher. The information may be used to commit various forms of fraud and identity theft, ranging from compromising a single existing bank account to setting up multiple new ones.

Early phishing attempts were crude, with telltale misspellings and poor grammar. Since then, however, phishing e-mails have become remarkably sophisticated. Phishers may pull language straight from official company correspondence and take pains to avoid typos. The fake sites may be near-replicas of the sites phishers are spoofing, containing the company’s logo and other images and fake status bars that give the site the appearance of security. Phishers may register plausible-looking domains like, or (using the number 1 instead of the letter L). They may even direct their victims to a well-known company’s actual website and then collect their personal data through a faux pop-up window.

Can phishing attacks be prevented?

Companies can reduce the odds of being targeted, and they can reduce the damage that phishers can do (more details on how below). But they can’t really prevent it. One reason phishing e-mails are so convincing is that most of them have forged “from” lines, so that the message looks like it’s from the spoofed company. There’s no way for an organization to keep someone from spoofing a “from” line and making it seem as if an e-mail came from the organization.

A technology known as sender authentication does hold some promise for limiting phishing attacks, though. The idea is that if e-mail gateways could verify that messages purporting to be from, say, Citibank did in fact originate from a legitimate Citibank server, messages from spoofed addresses could be automatically tagged as fraudulent and thus weeded out. (Before delivering a message, an ISP would compare the IP address of the server sending the message to a list of valid addresses for the sending domain, much the same way an ISP looks up the IP address of a domain to send a message. It would be sort of an Internet version of caller ID and call blocking.)