How to spot fake emails and texts from the real ones

If even Barack Obama and the heads of Apple, Microsoft and Amazon can fall victim to hackers, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Action Fraud has warned over fake phishing emails

The recent revelation that all of them, amongst other prominent Twitter users, had been the victims of a fraud concerning the “cryptocurrency” Bitcoin, exposed just how hard it is to spot genuine messages from take ones.

But for every one of these attention-grabbing cases, there are thousands that fly under the publicity radar. The worrying thing is that the hoaxers are getting more and more convincing.

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It used to be easy to spot a scam: emails that purported to be from a financially embarrassed Nigerian prince, or addressed to “Dear esteemed customer” had obviously come from people up to no good.

But the one that arrived on my phone the other week took longer to decipher. The mobile network O2 had been unable to process my bill, it said, and that if I were to avoid fees for late payment I should update my payment details. The link it gave appeared to contain an genuine O2 address but of course it was nothing of the sort. It led to a clone of O2’s site which had been put there to harvest the login details of anyone who cared to type them in.

No-one knows how many other people received the same message, but the consumer group Which? said it knew of many, and that customers of the GiffGaff network had been targeted in exactly the same way, a few months earlier.

Action Fraud, the national reporting centre for cyber crime, says another scam in current circulation advises recipients that they are eligible for a free TV licence as a result of the Covid pandemic. Those who fall for it are taken to a site that looks exactly like the real TV Licensing site.

This business of cloning websites is not confined to collecting sign-in details. Action Fraud also says that more than £16m has been “spent” on copies of shopping sites which collect the money but don’t deliver the goods. The sites most at risk of cloning are those aimed at 18-26 year-olds, with victims in Leeds, Sheffield and elsewhere. Amazon is among those also targeted in a practice known in the industry as “phishing”.

So how can you reasonably tell which of your messages are genuine? The golden rule is that anything which arrives in your inbox, either by email or text, which invites you to click a link to an official site, is almost certainly bogus. No respectable company, least of all one that collects money from you, will ever send you such a message, for exactly the same reason that hackers will.

But while never clicking a link in an email or text message is good advice, it’s not always possible to heed. That’s why you should look for the padlock symbol next to the address bar on any website that prompts you for your account details. It’s present on phone browsers as well as on PCs and it tells you that the owner of the site has registered it with an electronic key which proves ownership of it. If you don’t see the padlock, don’t use the site.

If you’re worried that you have inadvertently entered your details on a bogus site, log into the real one and change your password immediately. And check your statements for any transactions you don’t recognise.

You can also try installing an app like Call Blocker UK on your phone. This doesn’t intercept problem texts but it does try to shield you from malicious phone calls, using its own database of suspicious numbers, and optionally sends you updates about current scams. We have yet to hear if Mr Obama has signed up to receive them.

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