What is phishing? Phishing stands for "password harvesting fishing" and is the luring of sensitive information, such as passwords, Social Security numbers, financial data, account information, etc., from a victim by masquerading as someone trustworthy with a need for such information. The term was coined about 10 years ago by hackers attempting to steal AOL accounts to send out spam. Today, online criminals use phishing for more directly profitable uses, including identity theft, online banking, and online auctions.
Why is phishing a problem? Phishing threatens the very fabric of trust upon which commerce, and Internet commerce in particular, relies every day. Given how easy it is to compromise a user's security simply by posing as a trustworthy company and requesting sensitive information, this raises concerns about the level of trust that users will place on the Internet going forward. However, what's interesting about phishing statistics is that it represents a small percentage of all the "garden variety" identity theft that occurs around us.
What can customers do to protect themselves? While I'm not going to list everything that the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau suggest that consumers should do to protect themselves from phishing, here's the gist of their recommendations:
Don't give out personal information in a public place (such as a forum or chat room) or to someone you don't know. If you receive an E-mail or a message requesting your personal information, don't provide it. Instead call, E-mail or visit (online or offline) the business to check with them to see if they are in fact the ones who sent the E-mail or message to you. In all likelihood it wouldn't be them, since such professional companies should never ask for your personal information unless you've initiated communication with them by visiting their Web site or calling their toll-free number.