Computer help: Tips so you can avoid fraudulent email phishing scams

·5 min read

Q: I am an AOL subscriber and recently I received what I suspect is a phishing email, informing me that my AOL account will be discontinued if I do not click on a link in the message and supply my login and other information to AOL. I deleted that email, hoping that's the end of it, but was curious if there is more to it than that. Have you heard of this scam?

-- Joan A., Stuart

A: This sounds like a textbook case of phishing.

These are popular email scams that involve fraudulent messages that pretend to be sent from legitimate sources (ISPs, power and water companies, credit cards companies, banks, amazon.com, Netflix, Yahoo!, etc.). In these messages, the sender usually claims there's an issue of some sort with your account and the only way to fix it is to click on a link in the email you received -- that takes you to a fake login screen, on which you'll be asked to input your login information under false pretenses. Once submitted that information will be used by scammers to access other legitimate accounts you may be associated with. This is the beginning of identity theft, if you will.

You did right in being suspicious of the message and also in deleting it. Since these aren't virus related, there's not much more you can do besides that. Of course, if you submitted your credentials via the phony link, that's a different story -- see below for what to do. But at this point, identifying a phishing email, marking it as spam and then deleting it is the best course of action.

In most instances, phishing messages are not hard to spot. Most appear to be from established entities and the emails themselves often contain actual company logos or addresses for company's headquarters and such. However, the phony emails often bear a skewed or unprofessional-looking layout that's very different in appearance from official emails you may have received from these companies. They may also feature odd phrasing and/or misspelled words, have incomplete contact information in their signature blocks, include very urgent calls to action or are sent from email addresses that's not affiliated with the companies they claim to represent.

If you receive an email featuring these characteristics, delete it immediately even if you are unsure if it's truly fraudulent or not. As with all things relating to the internet, it's always best to err on the side of caution, and realistically speaking if the message were indeed valid and important then there's a good chance the sender will attempt to reach you again no matter what.

If you're still in doubt, contact AOL support (or the support team for any entity being falsely represented in the email you received) and ask if the message you received is indeed from them or not. They will be able to verify it immediately for you.

No matter what, don't click on any links in the message you receive (including one that lets you unsubscribe from future emails -- that's also fraudulent) and don't reply to the email, as this only will serve to validate your address and lead to more messages like this arriving in the future.

If you find yourself getting more and more emails like this in your inbox suddenly, reach out to AOL (or your ISP's) support for help in slowing down the number of messages received.

If you do get tricked and provide your credentials to scammers, contact your ISP immediately for help, as well as your bank and credit card companies. In addition to reporting the fraud, you will also want to change the passwords to any and all online accounts you may have and also create a profile on identitytheft.gov, as this will help you connect with creditors and also curb any fraudulent activity that may take place.

On a side note: If AOL were to shutter its services, it would not do so via a general panic email to its users. Rather it would be a series of notifications released over a long period of time, with firm dates of closure and links for help included. Similarly, such a closure would not involve the need to have you supply or verify your login information, since a system closure would not depend on you needing to do this to be finalized. That's just not how these things work.

And, of course, while AOL may not be the powerhouse it once was, it's not going anywhere soon, meaning the email you received is fiction and you have nothing to worry about.

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Contact Eyal Goldshmid at egoldshmid@yahoo.com

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: How to avoid being tricked by email phishing scams