Phishing is the use of email and fraudulent web sites to trick people into disclosing personal financial or identity information, such as credit card or Social Security numbers, user names (e.g., NetID), passwords and addresses. Although most "phishes" come as email, phishing scams can also come in the form of text messages and phone calls.
An email message may look harmless. Posing as your credit card company or even the University of Wisconsin, it alerts you to a problem with your account and urges you to respond immediately by clicking a web link and "verifying" or "updating" your account information. The email and the web site may appear official, with all the familiar logos and corporate phrases. But they're bait, presented to fool you into divulging your personal financial information.
Identity thieves send out billions of phish messages every month, according to media reports. The Anti-Phishing Working Group estimates that 5% of those who receive a phish message actually respond. Financial losses are difficult to measure, largely because victims are unable to attribute unauthorized charges to phish messages.
Spam filters provide some defense against phishers by intercepting their messages, but the target is elusive. The best defense is the individual user. Because things aren't always what they seem to be, you should be skeptical about emails. This humorous YouTube video gives a sampling of scams to avoid.
What is personal identity information?
Any piece of information which can potentially be used to uniquely identify, contact or locate a single person or can be used with other sources to uniquely identify a single individual is considered personal identity information. In includes, but is not limited to, Social Security, driver’s license and financial account numbers. It can also include user names and passwords, PIN numbers, street and email addresses, telephone numbers or biometric data (e.g., fingerprints, DNA).
Is it okay to give out personal identity information to the University via email?
No. Because it can be very difficult to identify counterfeit emails, it is important to remember that UW-Madison won’t ask you to disclose personal identity information via email. Scammers will sometimes pose as "the University email service" or "the campus tech support service." Don’t be fooled! If you are asked to disclose your Social Security Number, account information, NetID and password, or other identity information, don’t do it.
When in doubt, contact your local IT professional or the DoIT Help Desk at (608) 264-HELP (4357) to ask for advice, or visit helpdesk.wisc.edu.
What happens if I do respond to a phishing attempt?
OCIS and individual campus departments may monitor network logs to identify incoming emails that are suspicious in nature. As part of their diagnostic tools, they have the ability to determine which IP addresses have responded to a suspected phishing request.
If the University logs any response by you to a known phishing address, you will have your credentials (i.e., NetID and password) disabled and will not be able to access network resources until you have re-established your University identity credentials. This may include reviewing this brochure, watching a short educational video and/or discussing the situation with a campus IT representative.
Is getting access to my NetID and password really that unsafe?
Yes. Someone with your NetID and password now has access your personal information in the My UW portal, including your payroll statements, financial aid records, grades, home address and more. With a NetID, someone can steal your identity, change your course schedule, alter your research, and gain access to other applications within your department or even your home computer.
Are there any instances in which UW-Madison will ask me for personal identity information by email?
Neither OCIS nor the Division of Information Technology (DoIT) will ever ask you to reveal your NetID or password, or other restricted data, through email, phone, text or other means. You may be asked to change or strengthen a password, but you will never be asked to disclose it outright. OCIS is also working with campus groups to discourage them from sending emails requests like this, however not all departments may be aware of the implications of doing so. The goal for campus is to eliminate these types of online requests entirely. Departments who do send mass emails are encouraged to follow these Guidelines for Sending Mass Emails.
How to Recognize Scams
Scam tactics are increasingly sophisticated and change rapidly. Even if a request looks genuine, be skeptical and look for these warning flags:
- The message is unsolicited and asks you to update, confirm or reveal personal identity information (e.g., full SSN, account numbers, NetID, passwords, protected health information).
- The message creates a sense of urgency.
- The message has an unusual From address or an unusual Reply-To address instead of a "@wisc.edu" address.
- The (malicious) web site URL doesn’t match the name of the institution that it allegedly represents.
- The web site doesn’t have an "s" after "http//:" indicating it is not a secure site.
- The link in the pop-up doesn’t match the printed text.
- The message is not personalized. Valid messages from banks and other legitimate sources usually refer to you by name.
- There are grammatical errors.
Dos and Don'ts
- Do keep your Internet browser and operating system up-to-date with the latest security patches and updates.
- Do be wary of unsolicited messages. Even though you may recognize the name of the sender, scam artists sometimes use these tactics to get personal information from you. Never give out your NetID, password, credit card or social security number in response to an unsolicited request.
- Do look for a digital signature/certificate as another level of assurance that senders are who they say they are. Digitally signed messages will have a special image/icon at the subject. Validate its authenticity through the WiscMail web client or stand alone email clients. (Note: Campus provides digital signatures to individuals and departments.
- Do validate that you are connected to a certified, encrypted web site. If an organization wants to have a secure web site that uses encryption, it needs to obtain a site certificate. Look for a closed padlock in the status bar at the bottom of your browser window and for "https:" rather than "http:" in the URL.
- Do adjust your spam filters to ward off unwanted spam. Read everything you ever wanted to know about Spam and learn how spam filtering can help reduce the amount of unwanted email in your inbox, as well as help protect you from malicious attacks. Or, go to the Online Help Desk and search Spam Filter to learn more.
- Do use common sense. If you have any doubts, don’t respond. Ask your department IT representative, if applicable, or contact the DoIT Help Desk at (608) 264-HELP (4357) to ask for advice.
- Don't click the link. Instead, phone the company or do an Internet search for the company’s true web address.
- Don’t use forms that are embedded in the body of an email (even if the form appears legitimate). Only provide information over the phone or on a secure Web site (look for a Web address that starts with https://, not just http:// and for a padlock icon in the corner of the browser window).
- Don't open email or attachments from unknown sources. Many viruses arrive as executable files that are harmless until you start running them. .jpg file attachments have recently become a new format for spreading viruses.
To Report Phishing or Spam
To report emails that appear to be spam, forward the email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also submit the offending email directly through the WiscMail web client. Learn more about submitting misclassified WiscMail messages.
Play an online game that teaches you how to identify phishing attempts from Carnegie Mellon University.
If you are ever unsure whether an email message is legitimate, DO NOT RESPOND to it! Instead, contact the DoIT Help Desk (608) 264-HELP (4357) and ask for advice.