Joseph Martinos, CISSP, CCSP

In the digital age, email has become an integral part of our personal and professional lives. However, with the convenience of email communication comes the risk of phishing attacks. Phishing emails are deceptive messages designed to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information or performing harmful actions. To protect yourself and your organization from falling victim to phishing scams, it's crucial to learn how to recognize and report phishing emails effectively. In this comprehensive blog, we'll explore the various aspects of phishing, from spotting the red flags to taking action against these malicious attempts.

Understanding Phishing

Before we dive into the details of recognizing and reporting phishing emails, it's essential to understand what phishing is and how it works. Phishing is a form of cybercrime where attackers masquerade as trusted entities, such as banks, government agencies, or reputable companies, to deceive individuals into disclosing confidential information like passwords, credit card numbers, or personal identification details. They often do this by sending fraudulent emails that appear legitimate at first glance.

Eight Steps to Recognizing Phishing Emails

  1. Check the Sender's Email Address - Start by scrutinizing the sender's email address. Phishing emails often use email addresses that look similar to legitimate ones but may contain slight variations, such as misspelled domain names or extra characters. Pay close attention to the sender's domain to spot these discrepancies.
  2. Examine the Salutation - Phishing emails may use generic salutations like "Dear Customer" instead of addressing you by name. Legitimate organizations usually personalize their emails with your name.
  3. Be Cautious of Urgent Language - Phishing emails often create a sense of urgency to pressure recipients into taking immediate action. Beware of phrases like "Your account will be suspended" or "Immediate action required," as they are common in phishing attempts.
  4. Check for Spelling and Grammar Errors - Phishing emails often contain spelling and grammar mistakes. These errors can be a telltale sign that the email is not from a reputable source.
  5. Hover over Links Before Clicking - Avoid clicking on links in emails without hovering your cursor over them first. This action will reveal the actual URL the link leads to. If the URL looks suspicious or doesn't match the expected destination, do not click on it.
  6. Be Wary of Unsolicited Attachments - Phishing emails may include attachments or prompts to download files. Only open attachments from trusted sources, and even then, be cautious. Malicious attachments can contain malware that can compromise your device.
  7. Check for Secure Communication - Legitimate organizations usually use secure communication methods. Look for HTTPS in the website URL and a padlock icon in the browser's address bar when clicking on links in emails.
  8. Verify Requests for Personal Information - Be skeptical of emails requesting personal or financial information, such as passwords, Social Security numbers, or credit card details. Reputable organizations would not ask for this information via email.

Reporting Phishing Emails

Once you've identified a phishing email, it's essential to take action to protect yourself and others. Here's how to report phishing emails effectively:

  1. Don't Click on Anything - Avoid clicking on any links or downloading attachments in the phishing email. Clicking on these can compromise your security further.
  2. Report to Your Email Provider - Most email providers offer options to report phishing emails. Look for a "Report Phishing" or "Report Spam" button in your email client and use it. This helps the provider identify and block similar phishing attempts in the future.
  3. Notify the Legitimate Organization - If the phishing email appears to come from a reputable organization, contact them through their official website or customer service number to inform them of the scam. This helps the organization take appropriate measures to protect its customers.
  4. Update Your Security Software - Ensure your antivirus and anti-malware software is up to date. This will help protect your computer from potential threats introduced by phishing attempts.
  5. Change Passwords - If you've fallen victim to a phishing attack and disclosed sensitive information, change your passwords immediately. Use strong, unique passwords for each account to enhance security.

In conclusion, recognizing and reporting phishing emails is a crucial skill in today's digital landscape. By following the tips outlined in this post and taking proactive steps to prevent phishing attacks, you can protect yourself, your personal information, and your organization from falling victim to these malicious schemes. Stay vigilant, stay safe, and together, we can combat phishing and other cyber threats.

Joseph Martinos, CISSP, Information Security Officer at the National Bank of Canada has 20 years of experience in the Cybersecurity and technology field. He holds both the CISSP and CCSP certifications in addition to an Executive MBA. Joseph’s expertise are in Risk Assessments, Threat Modeling and Cloud Security.