The most common form of phishing is an e-mail pretending to be from a legitimate retailer, bank, organization or government agency. The sender asks to "confirm" your personal information for some made-up reason:
Your account is about to be closed.
An order for something has been placed in your name.
Your information has been lost because of a computer problem.
Phishers say they're from the fraud departments of well-known companies and ask to verify your information because they suspect you may be a victim of identity theft.
In one case, a phisher claimed to be from a state lottery commission and requested people's banking information to deposit their "winnings" in their accounts.
Source: National Consumers League
It happens countless times a day. People receive e-mails from what looks to be a familiar company — their bank, credit card company or another organization. It looks legitimate, often featuring a company logo, but something just isn't right.
Online "phishing" scams reel in unsuspecting users, who can have their personal information, identities and money stolen by unseen thieves.
Tom Regan, host of the NPR News Blog, recently had a close call with a phisher. He talks to John Ydstie about what happened and how to avoid being a phishing victim.
"I think it's the way most people do get caught," Regan says of his phishing encounter. "I wasn't paying any attention to what I was doing."
He opened an e-mail that looked very similar to one he received from his bank. It asked him to log into the site by entering a user name and password. Regan filled in his user name but then looked at the Web address.
"That's when I knew right away I had made a mistake because the URL was not the URL of my financial institution," he says.
He closed the browser immediately, went to the correct Web site and changed his password.
"I got lucky," he says.
In most cases, phishers and scammers can't duplicate the exact URL of a bank or a credit card company. But they try to make it appear as if they're a legitimate site.
For example, in faking the Web address for PayPal, a popular online payment tool, phishers will use the number "1" instead of the letter "l" in the company's name.
"They count on people not to notice that," Regan says. "They'll slightly misspell a word ... but people are busy and they don't notice. They click on it and they go."
Also, watch out for https at the beginning of the URL. Normally, that's a sign of a secure site. If the tiny lock at the bottom of a browser is open, the site is not secure.
Your name, birth date, Social Security number and mother's maiden name can all be used by online thieves.
"They're phishing constantly for any little bit of information that they can find that they can use to get access to your money," Regan says.
In the end, you have to weigh the risks of convenience against security.