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How Safe is Your Success? Part 5 of 8

"How Safe is Your Success" is a series of eight articles that address different aspects of a universal problem which is of particular importance to those who do business on-line. Most Internet users are at least aware there are dangers "out there", but few appreciate the real extent of those dangers, the possible (even likely) consequences, or the best, most practical and least expensive means of countering them. This series is intended to at least provide some useful awareness of the situation.


Part 5 - Phishy Tales

The word "phishing" has become something of a buzz word, yet many casual Internet users still do not know what phishing really is or how to identify it. In this part of our series I'm going to use a simple but actual email to demonstrate the most common form of phishing. But first, a bit of background.

Computer and technology dictionary defines phishing as "The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft." On the origin of the word, Webopedia says "Phishing, also referred to as brand spoofing or carding, is a variation on 'fishing', the idea being that bait is thrown out with the hopes that while most will ignore the bait, some will be tempted into biting".

OK, but how do you distinguish between a phishing eMail and a real message from, say, your bank or credit card provider? A phishing message may look very legitimate, with all the right logos and so on. Even most of the links may be the real thing. Although there are often tell-tales such as poor spelling or bad grammar, many examples of this scam do appear to be perfect in every respect. The only way to see what is really going on is to look "under the covers".

What the scammer is trying to do is get you to click on a link that will take you to a website which is different to the one you think it is going to take you to. At this dummy page the scammer will try to get you to enter sensitive information such as credit card or on-line banking details.

With plain text emails, what you see is what you get. If a link says "" then that is exactly where it will take you. But all is not so transparent with the links in a HTML email. With HTML the only way to tell where a link will really take you is to look at the HTML code that underlies the message. And "No", you cannot tell by hovering your mouse cursor over the link and looking at the status bar. The status bar message can be faked very easily.

All eMail client programs of which I am aware provide some means for you to look at the HTML code. In Outlook, for instance, you can right-click on the body of the message and select "View Source" from the pop-up menu. I've selected the scam eMail I'm going to use because it is a very simple example without too much HTML code to complicate the picture. The original eMail as it appeared in Microsoft Outlook can be seen here:

In a moment I'll show you the HTML code associated with that eMail. Don't worry if you don't understand HTML code at all – I'll explain the few important parts. But first, just a bit of general information to help you make sense of what you see.

In HTML code, anything that is between is called a "tag". A tag is the actual code that tells the web browser how to display the message text. In this simple example there are only a few tags in use, and only one of them is very important to us. The tags in use in the example email are:

. See Lines 1 and 2.

<.BR> A line break. Several together is a series of line breaks. E.g. line 3. NOTE: The dot before BR is not part of a real HTML Tag. It is inserted so some editors will not interpret the text as a real Tag.

and The text that appears between them will be in bold type. See line 4.

address that follows the "href =" term is where you will be taken if you click this link. After the target web address, the tag must be "closed" with a right-angle bracket >. This tag must also be terminated with a
tag. See lines 16-18. Anything that appears between the and the is simply a comment, regardless of the fact that it may look like a web address. This information is critical to the following analysis.

Here's the actual HTML code that makes up the eMail message. I have added the line numbers for ease of reference – they are not part of HTML.

2. "">

3. <.BR><.BR>

4. Dear SunTrust Client,<.BR><.BR>


6. We recently reviewed your account, and suspect that your

7. Suntrust account may have been accessed by an unauthorized

8. third party.Protecting the security of your account and of the

9. SunTrust network is our primary concern.<.BR>


11. Therefore, as a preventative measure, we have temporarily

12. limited access to sensitive Suntrust account features.<.BR>


14. Click the link below in order to regain access to your account:<.BR><.BR>





19. <.BR><.BR>

20. We received a massive identity thefts targeting SunTrust so

21. we suggest you to Confirm Your Banking Account within 24

22. hours.<.BR>



25. avoid Credit Card Fraud.<.BR>


27. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and

28. apriciate your assistance in helping us maintain the integrity of

29. the entire SunTrust system.<.BR><.BR>

30. Sincerely,<.BR><.BR>

31. The SunTrust Security Department Team.<.BR>

Incidentally, note the misspelling of "appreciate" on line 28. There are other errors also, such as a missing space in "party.Protecting" on line 8, and lines 20-21 are poor English. Real financial institutions rarely make such obvious errors.

Now, it is lines 16 to 18 that are critical to our investigation of this scam. Line 17 is apparently a link that suggests we will be taken to "". There is no reason to be suspicious of the address itself because it is after all on the SunTrust website. But…

Line 17 is not inside a tag, as denoted by an opening < and a closing >. The tag that indicates the real target of the link is on the previous line, line 16. The text "" on line 17 is just that – nothing but text. It could just as easily read "Find Nemo here" and it would have the same effect. The real target of the link is, as line 16 indicates, "" because it is in the "
The moral of this story: Do not trust APPARENT links in HTML email. Either check the underlying code as described above, or cut and paste the apparent link directly into your browsers address line. If you click on it, you could end up at a scammers webpage that looks legitimate, but will be anything but.

In short "Click here" could take you to anywhere – you probably appreciate that. But "" could also take you to anywhere. Like "Click here", it is just text, despite the fact it looks like a web address.

If this newsletter has been passed on to you by a friend, please subscribe yourself so you can be sure of receiving the next part in this series, when we'll take a look at disaster recovery – specifically, recovering data that has been lost from your hard drive.

About the Author

Bill Hely is an Australian technologist, consultant and author whose professional focus has been on advising and supporting small business operators in IT and Office Productivity - and rescuing them when they didn't heed his advice the first time around. He is the author of several books on technology for the business person, including the Bible of Internet and PC security "The Hacker's Nightmare" -


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