From time to time, I get a phone call from one of my computer support clients asking whether an email they have received is genuine or a scam (eg a phishing email). Quite often, they will forward the message to me for my comments
Checking back on nearly seven years of blog posts, I’m surprised to find that I don’t seem to have covered this issue specifically before, so here’s a list of some of the pointers I look for in deciding whether an email is likely to be genuine or not:
- The “From” address looks dodgy. If, for instance, you receive an email from “email@example.com” then that’s likely to be fake as the UK domain for Amazon is “amazon.co.uk”. Another common trick is for the domain of the sender to be spelled very, very close to the spelling of a “genune” sender (such as “firstname.lastname@example.org”. Unfortunately, even if the sender’s email address does look correct, it doesn’t need to be as it’s possible for anyone with the right knowledge to “spoof” an email address – ie make it look as if an email has come from an email address other than the actual sender. There’s nothing you can do about a spoofed sender address: just be vigilant.
- The email includes an attachment. Always be very very careful about opening any attachment that you were not expecting. An attachment can look like anything (eg “Claim Your Prize.pdf”) but, in reality, be something else (eg “nastymalware.exe”). A common way of getting people to open hazardous attachments is to pretend that the attachment contains private information that has been sent to you in error – eg “companypayroll.xlsx”. They are relying on your nosiness to cause you to open something nasty that you think was sent to you in error.
- The email includes logos, or styles or “house colours” that don’t look quite right in the context of who is supposed to be the sender. A genuine email from a reputable organisation would never get its own logo wrong (eg the shape, or the resolution).
- The style of the English is stilted or strange, or words are mis-spelt or mis-used. Yes, I know that genuine, national institutions, are far from perfect in their use of English (I’ve seen rogue apostrophes in BBC content!), but I’m talking here of something more blatant. The worse the English, the less likely the email is to be genuine (assuming, that is, that it is purporting to come from a reputable organisation and not an individual).
- If there appears to be a dire threat either stated or implied, then the email could be suspect. Think about it: if you’ve been spending megabucks with Amazon over the years, they’re hardly likely to want to lose your custom, so an email that threatens “confirm your password now or your account will be closed” would hardly be the best way for Amazon to behave towards a valued client.
- On the other hand, if an email includes an offer that seems to be too good to be true, then it almost certainly IS too good to be true.
If you have any doubts at all about the bona fides of an email then do not click on any link in that email. Clicking on a link in a suspect email could take you to anywhere in cyberspace that the sender wishes to send you. You could end up downloading malware onto your computer: you could end up on a website that looks genuine but isn’t (where you end up divulging a username and password – or more).
Instead, contact the supposed sender by phone, or via their website. Access their website in the way that you normally do – not by any link within the suspect email. By the same token, do not ring any phone number quoted in the email. Verify by other means the true phone number of the purported sender. Do not be embarrassed to phone the organisation to check whether the email did come from them. Do not feel that you are wasting their time. If someone is using their reputation to try to con you then they want to hear about it. You look much less daft checking that something is genuine than clearing up the mess if you went ahead regardless and fell into something nasty.
Although I don’t seem to have covered this topic directly before, I’ve come pretty close: there are some links below. I don’t apologise for including the link to my blog post about the “Microsoft Support scam”. People are still getting caught out by unexpected phone calls from scammers pretending to be from Microsoft.