Hurricane Irene Leaves the Water Prime for Phishing
Hurricane Irene will come with a hefty price tag. According to Reuters, economic losses are expected to total more than $10 billion. Most of the costs will fall where you expect them to: infrastructure restoration, insurance claims, lost work time and flood damage. But some of the expenses are less obvious, and they could hit you hard, even if you don't live in an affected area.
One of these expenses is the cost of cybercrime resulting from phishing. You've probably heard of it. You find email in your inbox from an organization that seems to be reputable, asking a few questions or prompting you to provide some personal information. You provide the information, and before you know it, the scammer has used this information to compromise your bank or credit card accounts. Because phishing attacks are meant to trick you, even the savviest computer users can become phishing victims.
Hurricanes like Irene are prime times for phishers to start attacking. In fact, they are so prevalent that the Department of Homeland Security sent out a phishing alert right before Hurricane Irene hit. During highly-publicized natural disasters, people check their computers more often, looking for pictures and waiting for news. People in the affected regions use social networking tools to get messages to family and friends. Public officials and credit card companies, who are often able to shut down phishing sites quickly, have more important responsibilities on their plates. As a result, these sites stay online longer than they normally would.
Here's how scammers can trick you into responding to phishing attempts during natural disasters--and how to make sure you don't get scammed.
- Don't let your curiosity get the best of you. Don't open up email attachments or click on links in your email, even when the subject lines make you hungry for more. Phishers prey on your curiosity. That email that appears to be a news article or series of hurricane-related photographs could actually be a phishing attack. Get your news and photos directly from the Internet by doing a search and for information from reputable news sites.
- Never respond directly to an emailed request for money from a charity. People are more likely to open their wallets during disasters like Irene, but make sure you're not opening yours up to thieves. Always donate to organizations you know you can trust. Use guidestar.com or another reputable source to evaluate the organization you are donating to, and never donate directly through an email link. Instead, type the organization's URL directly into a browser. If you want to respond to a specific person, do an email search to find the email address. Don't just copy and paste information from your original email. Phishers often disguise their URLs and create sites that look so real, you'll think you're donating to a charity when you're not.
- Always stop and think before responding to an email request. Disasters are confusing times, filled with excitement. It is easy to let your guard down when your adrenaline is pumping. Take a few moments to remind yourself that you are especially vulnerable during this time period, especially if you are in the middle of the disaster. Even information that seems innocuous--like your mother's address--can be used to compromise your financial accounts when it is combined with other information.
- Use smart phones cautiously. During the first weekend, Hurricane Irene left 6.7 million people without electricity. What did they do? They turned on their charged-up smart phones and started leaving their friends Facebook messages and browsing the web. Don't forget that you can be phished on your mobile phone. Be as cautious on your mobile phone as you are on your home computer. Be equally careful with Facebook. Don't click on evocative links, even if they appear to be from people that you know. Simply write the friend back and ask if the link is safe to open. If he says he didn't send it, you know you have a problem.
Phishing attacks aren't successful without your cooperation. Being aware, especially during stressful times, keeps your money where it belongs--in your hands.
Resources / References
The Wall Street Journal. "As US Utilities Restore Power, Fewer Than 1 Million In Dark"
United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team: Potential Hurricane Irene Phishing Scams