Phishing explained

Phishing scams are typically fraudulent email messages appearing to come from legitimate enterprises (e.g., your university, your Internet service provider, your bank). These messages usually direct you to a spoofed web site and ask you for private information (e.g., password, credit card, or other account updates). The perpetrators then use this private information to commit identity theft.

An example of a phishing attempt is an email message stating that you are receiving it due to fraudulent activity on your account, and asking you to "click here" to verify your information. Sometimes these messages even use the name of an organization you are a member of like Baylor or a bank like Bank of America, this is called Spearing and a more complete explanation can be found in this article on the FBI's website:

How to avoid them

Microsoft provides some great tips on how to spot "phish" in this article:

To avoid phishing scams, never click the links provided within these types of email messages. If you feel the message may be legitimate, go directly to the company's web site (i.e., type the real URL into your browser) or contact the company to see if you really do need to take the action described in the email message. Alternatively, copy and paste the URL from the message into your browser rather than clicking it. Delete the email message from your Inbox, and then empty it from the deleted items folder to avoid accidentally accessing the web sites it points to.

Always read your email as plain text. Phishing messages often contain clickable images that look legitimate; by reading messages in plain text, you can see the URLs that any images point to. Additionally, when you allow your mail client to read HTML or other non-text-only formatting, attackers can take advantage of your mail client's ability to execute code, which leaves your computer vulnerable to viruses, worms, and Trojans.


Reading email as plain text is a general best practice that, while avoiding some phishing attempts, won't avoid them all. Some legitimate sites use redirect scripts that don't check the redirects. Consequently, phishing perpetrators can use these scripts to redirect from legitimate sites to their fake sites.

Another tactic is to use a homograph attack, which, due to International Domain Name (IDN) support in modern browsers, allows attackers to use different language character sets to produce URLs that look remarkably like the authentic ones. For more, see:

Reporting phishing attempts

You can report these phishing scam attempts to the company that's being spoofed. You can also send reports to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at:$.startup?Z_ORG_CODE=PU01

Depending on where you live, some local authorities also accept phishing scam reports. And finally, you can send details to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, which is building a database of common scams to which people can refer:

Information supplied courtesy of the Indiana University UITS Knowledge Base.