The heading of this blog is one of the questions I am asked quite frequently in my security and password sessions. Specifically, how I tell personally, if an email is a phishing attempt- and what advice I give for managers to take back to their teams and any future staff around dealing with phishing attempts. Phishing and preventing people from being taken in by scammers is something of a focus for us – we’ve even previously written about phishing on this blog specifically from a small business perspective Phishing: The Small Business Lowdown. So, we’ve put together our Phishing Check List for business teams.
Whilst not exhaustive by any means, this list has served me, and my team well.
Here’s my check list – if something doesn’t look right to me, in my inbox , this is usually how I evaluate and deal with it. Admittedly, the items have become second nature – so I don’t necessarily need a physical check list – but in case you, or your staff do – there’s a downloadable printable PDF at the end of this article.
There are 7 points – the detailed explanations follow.
The Detailed explanations
1. Are you expecting this email ?
Email is used to validate identity when new accounts or profiles are created , so often you may be sent an email with a “validation” link in it to confirm your email address and thus if you have just signed up for a new profile or online shopping account – then, yes, the email may be expected. And it’s highly unlikely to be a phishing attempt. Don’t overthink this one. If you’re not expecting a validation email, or a confirmation of identity for anything, then move on.
2. Does the From email , in all its variations look legit ?
Most email clients (the programs we use to read and work with emails , rather than the actual email exchange ) have tools where you can look at the details of the sender – it can be confusing as sometimes there is a “via” or the reply-to email looks different . Generally what you want to see here is that the email address you see in the name, has the same domain as the company or the sender, and that the reply to address isn’t necessarily completely different. Also if there is a “via” displayed that makes sense.
It’s not always a problem if the email has come via another channel – for example Bank of Melbourne emails are sent to their clients via the St George email servers, so they all arrive with “via stgeorge.com.au” in the from address. Again – it’s not a problem if it makes sense, and you know that the company details are correct.
Phishing emails sometimes come via a channel that they do not belong to- it’s a warning flag if you see a “via” in the From address that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t look legit.
3. Is there a sense of urgency, related to a deadline or time limit that feels wrong.
Assuming that this is not a validation email of some kind ( see 1. ) that you are expecting , another red flag is when an email purportedly from a bank or another financial institution arrives, demanding a login, for security purposes – and there is a limit or a deadline associated with this login.
Creating a false sense of urgency by threatening to cut off access is a very big warning flag. Assuming that you have not been ignoring notices for weeks from the company in question (don’t laugh, people don’t read anything that comes from a Corporate, even the legit stuff)
4. Google Search is your friend. Use It.
When in doubt about the sender, the reply-to or the via – use Google Search to find out info about the company and the details shown.
As an example – if you did not know that Bank of Melbourne emails are sent via St George – go to google search and type in “Connection between St George and Bank of Melbourne” – the search results should verify that
a) yes, there is a connection between the banks and
b) in fact, Bank of Melbourne is simply a rebranded St George …
which means that – we can safely assume the via stegorge.com.au is not a problem
5. Is the email badly written?
Emails and communications go through several layers of checks and several different team members and managers before being signed off, and then sent. This is particularly true in larger corporates.
Spelling errors, and incredibly bad grammar are almost guaranteed not to happen.
It’s a massive warning red flag when there are a large number of typos, spelling errors and bad grammar in an email that’s meant to be coming from a corporate.
6. What does the link Preview tell you?
Most browsers will show you a preview of the link if you hover your mouse over the link or button – it looks like this –
Occasionally you can’t do this as the links are shortened by services such as Goog.ly or Bit.ly – however, if they are not shortened then, you can see where you’re going before you click.
7. Check on the website for the vendor, or call your contact
After all of that – if you’re still not sure – either go directly to the website, login and check for any notifications , or pick up the phone and call whomever you normally speak to.
If the email is from a bank, or larger company – call up their call centre – and ask about the email. If it’s legit, they’ll be able to help you with the details.