An urgent message from an international banker comes up in your inbox. What do you do? Most of us don’t even think twice, we just delete it.
You get an important notice from Northeastern about your benefits or your classes. What do you do? Most of us don’t think once or twice, we just open it.
Scammers are counting on this when they use new, targeted attacks. Northeastern students, faculty and staff have been specific targets for email scams intended to steal your money, your financial and personal information, or hold your data hostage through ransomware Trojan attachments. These emails are not random, but rather targeted because you are a member of the Northeastern community.
These “spear phishing” attacks are not generic. They invite you to click with subject lines and messages about topics you care about – information about your HR benefits, recommendations for courses that will help you get a job – in emails that have logos and other elements that make them appear as if they are officially from Northeastern. Then, if you are tempted enough to click on any of the links, the scammers may have set up sites that are almost like a Northeastern site, but not quite.
This type of targeted phishing email is a lot more work for the scammers, however, they are not going to stop because these types of attacks are successful. So how do you not get caught by a phishing email?
The tips below highlight a range of issues to keep an eye on as you scan through everything in your inbox. They aren’t foolproof, but raising your awareness across the board is the most effective way to up your chances.
Bottom line – What will NEVER be in an email from Northeastern
There are two things that should immediately set off alarms in your head:
Northeastern will NEVER ask you to 1) validate an account, or 2) send sensitive information through email.
What to look for in an email
Even if you don’t see those requests, there are several other red flags that could let you know that the email is not from Northeastern. Below is an example of an email that some students received.
- Be aware of unusual senders – Fight the tendency to skim over this and pay attention to the “From” email. Even if it looks like it comes from an @neu.edu address, ask yourself whether that is how an area of Northeastern would represent itself.
- Check the links – Don’t just click links in an email, look for the text of the URL behind them for “northeastern.edu” or “neu.edu.” On a computer, you can see this by hovering your mouse over the link text, as you see above. On a phone, long-press the link text to bring up the URL along with the options. For anything that is not a Northeastern site, carefully examine it. External Northeastern partner sites – such as Lynda.com – are rare, and will require the extra step of having you to sign in with your myNEU username and password.
- Read what’s written – For all the work that goes into these emails, the language used in them often is not the best, and you don’t have to be an English professor to catch that. Missing words, wrong words, bad capitalization, and poorly worded sentences are all things to look out for in the text. However, with technological advances, criminals may now be using services that translate spear phishing emails into correct English or the language of their targets. Language use may not be a reliable indicator by itself.
- Look for ways to verify the email – Names of individuals or programs in the text can be used in a search to confirm that the email comes from a Northeastern source. If there isn’t anything like that in the email, that’s a big sign that it’s not real. If there is a name, though, don’t hesitate to look up and contact that member of the Northeastern faculty or staff to check.
What to look for on a click-through site
If you do click on a link in a phishing email, the sites that link leads you to will also have warning signs.
- Northeastern offers links to external services – There are a number of online services available through third parties, but if there is one that Northeastern suggests that you use in an email, it will be through the myNEU portal or another channel that is easily recognizable as official.
- Can you tell where you are? – All Northeastern sites are good at identifying where they fit in the university community. If you can’t tell, don’t click.
- There should be contact information – All reputable sites have a way for you to contact the site owners. Look at what’s there, and don’t be afraid to reach out to verify what you’re seeing.
What to do if you’re not sure
If none of the checks above have made you less suspicious about whether an email or a site is legitimate, send a copy of the phishing email to email@example.com. If you have questions, contact the Office of Information Security at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are there to help you.
What to do if you took the bait
If you suspect that you responded to a phishing email with your myNEU username and password, or any other Northeastern information, contact the ITS Service Desk at 617.373.4357 (xHELP) or email@example.com immediately.
If you responded to a phishing email and entered any financial information for a payment, contact your bank, and the issuing credit card company, PayPal, or other payment system.
Above all, do not be afraid to admit that you fell for the scam in a phishing email. No matter how savvy you are, these attacks are getting more sophisticated.