How to Protect Yourself Against Email Scams

Leslie Meredith

Email scams continue to be a plague even to those who consider themselves Internet-savvy. In a moment of panic, anyone can fall prey to a scammer’s ploy.
Recently I received an email from what appeared to be the property tax office in California’s Kings County, saying it had received tax payment. I have never owned property, but I was afraid a big chunk of money might have been mistakenly deducted from my account. The e-mail came with a link to “see” the transaction details, and I almost clicked on it. Instead, however, I visited the county website, typed in the case number, and found it was not on record. So this was a scam. Doubtlessly it would have led to malware or some scheme aimed at getting financial information from me.
Like most ill-intended email campaigns, this one qualified as passwords  and account numbers.
On the flip side of scareware are scams that promise special offers and free gifts, to tempt recipients into clicking misleading links and opening malicious files.
Whether it’s with a carrot or a stick, the results are the same.
Scam Trends a site that tracks and posts Internet scams as they happen, has assembled a list of the top five scams so far in January. It’s a good place to check whether a suspicious email is actually a known scam.
Top 5 Scams in January
  1. “USPS Delivery Failure Notification” reads the subject line. In the message, recipients are asked to open an attachment to track the package. The attachment contains a malicious file to download. Hit “run” and your computer could freeze.
  2. “American Airlines: Your order has been completed.” This “carrot” includes a ticket number, flight number and a link to print your ticket, but instead the ZIP file contains a virus that will offer so-called help for your infected computer with a link to a fake antivirus site.
  3. A variation of number 2, “ORDER ID: 045294099, American Airlines” uses the same lure complete with seemingly authentic flight information and a malicious attachment.
  4. “ConEdison Billing Summary as of Jan 12” includes a link to a malicious executable file. Recipients are told the link includes their billing statement. Gas emergency information cut and pasted from Con Ed’s website appears in the body of the email.
  5. “Phishing incident report call number” claims to be from CERT (for “Computer Emergency Response Team”), the U.S. government’s department for computer protection. A link promises details about the recipient’s case, but contains another virus.
Most scammers are betting on coincidence — that a handful of recipients will have done business recently with the subject of their scam. For instance, a user of  Scam Trends identifying himself as John commented on the USPS scam, “This one nearly got me because I mailed a package to Argentina about that time and it never arrived.” Others weren’t so lucky: They clicked on the attachment and found their computers infected.
Scammers are also opportunists. It was no coincidence that the shipping scam was released during the busiest time of the year for the Post Office. Further, immediately following the holidays, millions received an email scam directed at those who had received new iPhones and iPads, asking them to submit their credit card information for new iTunes accounts.
If you receive an email that appears to be from a company, a government office or even from a friend, stop before clicking a link or opening an attachment, no matter how compelling the message is.
David Borgenicht, author of the “Worst Case Scenario Handbook” series, has a poster in his office that reads, “Now Panic and Freak Out.” Go ahead, but don’t do it at the computer.
Once you’re calm, go to the legitimate website referred to in the email. For instance, I searched for “Kings County property tax office” and looked for the official site indicated by a .gov extension in the Web address. Do not click on any link in the email. If you believe the email is legitimate, contact the company through its website or by phone.
How to identify malicious attachments
In most cases, it’s better never to open an attachment from people you don’t know. But these days, scammers can make emails appear to be from a known contact. Worse, Windows is set by default to hide familiar attachment file types, and you might be fooled into thinking a potentially dangerous .exe file is a harmless document because it shows as a .doc.
Here’s how that works: A scammer could name his malicious .exe attachment “yourprize.doc,” which would lead you to believe it’s a Microsoft Word document if your system is set to “hide extensions for known file types.” If the setting were changed to show extensions, it would read “yourprize.doc.exe.” (For Mac users, file extensions for attachments are shown by default.)

If you’re running Windows, here’s one way to change the default: Open Start and select Computer. Once the new window opens, hold down the Alt key to reveal the menu bar if it is not displayed. The menu bar consists of the listings File, Edit, View, Tools and Help. Select “Tools” and then “Folder Options.” A pop-up window will appear with three tabs: General, View and Search. Select View and scroll down the list until you find the check box “Hide extensions for known file types.” Uncheck this box.

Find “Hide extensions for known file types” here and then uncheck the box for improved protection.

Microsoft lists five common file types that could be dangerous to open. These are .exe, .com, .pif, .bat and .scr. Delete attachments with these extensions. The following file types are usually safe to open, according to Microsoft: .txt or .doc text files, and image files including .jpg, .gif and .png. Make sure your system is up to date and you are running reliable antivirus software.
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