Phishing and the cost of your information

By Aqsa Hussain.

Do you remember receiving that email some time ago mentioning ‘Here is an invoice to the flight you recently purchased’ and you immediately thought ‘hmm, what flight? Maybe it was that flight to …?’ There was a time you received an email saying ‘You have been selected as the winner of the National Lottery’ and you thought ‘FINALLY, some good luck!’ And then there was that email from your long lost cousin reading ‘Dear cousin, I have been captured by the pirates and they are demanding a sum of $10,000 in order to be released and finally return to you and the family. Please help me, you are the only family I can rely on’ and naturally you thought ‘hmm this cannot be true’. In all these cases, there was always an attachment in the email which you may or may not have been tempted to open. Hopefully, you didn’t.

Opening Pandora’s box

These emails are examples of phishing – the malicious attempt to obtain private information from an individual or a company. As soon as you open one of these attachments, you have opened Pandora’s box and allowed a criminal access to your online life. How do you prevent this? Make sure you only access URLs you are familiar with, use spam filters in your email, only use secure websites to transmit your information, always be wary if you are unexpectedly asked for personal information, use anti-virus/anti-spyware/firewalls and NEVER open an attachment you are not expecting.

Hopefully this is common sense to the large majority of us who have ever had access to computers. But, a lot of us have made mistakes. These mistakes led to us seeing our bank accounts being rapidly depleted or spam emails being sent from our personal account to our entire contact network. We can only hope that those friends and family did not fall victim to the same mistake.

The myth of covering your webcam…

There are also many of us who may not have yet realised the consequences of opening such an attachment simply clicking it away after we self-classified it as spam. However, in doing so we have opened up a direct route of access for the sender of that phishing email, the hacker, into our computer. Although these hackers remain dormant, they could have access to our emails, see everything we type, see us through our webcams… Is there a reason why cybersecurity experts have warned us to place something opaque onto the little camera above our computer screen?

Your value on the black market

It is true that everything comes at a price. Most things you can buy or sell online: clothes, food, books, electronics etc. And for the most part these transactions are recorded on some forum online for future reference. But something which will be news for many of us is that our personal information, probably obtained through illegal phishing practices now also has a price. It sits on the online black market, an area of online space many of us have no idea even exists. The online black market comprises of anything and everything which is online and that you could imagine. You can buy 1000 Hotmail email addresses for $12, 6-20% of a paypal account, stolen healthcare insurance information worth $1300 or even the hacked webcam of a girl for $1. This price information is collected from open-source documents such as news and government reports which closely track such sites, however are unable to catch the perpetrators.

Our information is private so long as we desire so we must ensure we protect it. Report anything which seems phish-y and more importantly ensure that you take sufficient anti-virus/anti-spamming steps to reduce your likelihood of being phished in the first place. Whatever you do, do not be tempted to open the email to save your long lost cousin who has been captured by pirates. Otherwise, you too will fall victim to online pirates but in this case, ransom money will not help.