Phishing, one of the most common internet scams, occurs when someone you do not know sends an email using a familiar name or a fictitious email address, hoping to entice a response. The email looks like it is from a friend, but it is not.

Because  the email appears to be from someone you know, it is tempting to open it. In reality, your friend’s email has been hacked and the  links in what you receive, when activated with a click, can install malware on your device. Clicking on one of these links opens a door to your computer— allowing someone to spy on your online activities, to slow or lock down your computer, and/or to wreak havoc on your hard drive.

People from all walks of life can become victims of phishing but often older adults are targeted. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid becoming a “live one” on a phishing line.

To avoid a phishing attempt, look critically at incoming emails:

  1.  If you know the senders and have received previous emails from them, is the email address displayed on the ”from” line their real address? If not, do not reply.
  2.  Do you normally do business with the company that appears to be sending you the email? If not, do not respond by email.
  3. Does the email use incorrect spelling, grammar, punctuation or poor English? Check for these details and really obvious mistakes because many phishing attempts start overseas.
  4.  Does the message use several different fonts? This is a common practice in writing messages for phishing.

If you suspect a phishing attempt may be in your inbox:

  1.  Do NOT click any links in the body of the email.
  2.  If you know the person whose name is used in a suspicious email, call him or her to report what you received. That person may be unaware his or her email address has been hacked and will want to take action.
  3.  If it appears to be from a company you know but the email seems dubious, call and report this incident so the company can ameliorate a negative situation.
  4.  Delete these emails likely sent by scammers from your system.
  5.  Do not reach out to contact the sender of errant emails.
  6.  Share these tips with your friends and family so they know how to watch for phishing attempts and know how to avoid being “caught.”

If you believe you have been ‘caught’ by phishing:

We recommend you ask a consultant to help you evaluate your exposure and to install anti-virus software and anti-malware software on your computer. There also are many free anti-malware programs that can protect your computer, but, unless you are an expert, it is safer to get professional help.

  1.  Do not ignore the issue because doing so could allow perpetrators, through virus software, to access to your personal and financial information.
  2.  Change your passwords, particularly on accounts with sensitive financial information.
  3.  Consider changing your email address to a free Gmail account for your personal email.
  4.  Research malware vendors to learn which are better for filtering spam and emails from scammers.

Phishing schemes are common. Do not be embarrassed if you receive them. But do be savvy about how to handle them. Talk about them. All of us can help each other avoid threats like phishing.

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Deborah Hart, the President and CEO of Montgomery Place,  a  community in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood for residents who are 62 and older, shares practical steps on how to protect yourself from online scammers.