The internet can seem like a vast ocean as users are surrounded by information.
Just as fish are lured to hooks, cybercriminals are constantly trying to get users to click on malicious links sent to emails so they can gain access to personal information.
This is called phishing.
In response to recent phishing attempts to CPP email addresses, the IT Service Desk sent out an email in late March to the campus community alerting users to several emails that looked to have been sent from CPP email accounts but were phishing attempts.
According to Information Security’s e-help page, phishing consists of techniques used by cybercriminals to con users into revealing sensitive information or installing malware by way of electronic communication.
Carol Gonzales, Associate Vice President for IT Security and Compliance, said the issue is widespread and has been going on for years.
Cal Poly Pomona is no exception.
“Phishing occurs all the time,” Gonzales said. “It is an ongoing practice of bad guys trying to get you to disclose information.”
The information that can be gleaned off phishing is varied and can range from stealing personal information to using other people’s accounts to do other things.
“That could be your email account or it could be your actual identity to go and open bank accounts with,” Gonzales said. “There’s no rhyme or reason, it just depends on what their scam happens to be.”
Keeping track of phishing attempts is not easy because cybercriminals constantly change IP addresses and email addresses.
“They just happen to be smarter now, using technology and can propagate a lot farther, faster and more intelligently,” Gonzales said.
She also mentioned IT does have protections in place that look for patterns systemically.
But, they are not always enough.
“As much as we want to be smart and we look for patterns and we can block them, they know that these systems look for patterns and so they alter the pattern,” she said. “Effectively, it’s an arms race,” said David Drivdahl, director of the Systems and Data Center for IT.
Phishing emails can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from legitimate ones, Dirvdahl said.
One way users can keep themselves secure is to keep devices updated.
Some phishing emails contain links that, if clicked, automatically install malware on devices, but,
Dirvdahl cautioned, it’s not foolproof.
He said if one clicks on any link that sends the user somewhere other than cpp.edu, there is cause for concern.
“That site could have malware, so if your computer is not updated, they could have installed malware on your computer,” Dirvdahl said.
Phishing goes on throughout the year, but Gonzales said it is also seasonal and increases around holidays, especially Christmas, because of an uptick in online shopping.
Another potential time for increased phishing attempts may be during spring break, she said.
Drivdahl added that this is probably because cybercriminals are aware that there are more people taking vacations, so they play the odds.
Once a phishing email is sent, all a user has to do is open it in order for the sender to know that the account is active.
“Everybody is tracking your data, so they know,” Gonzales said. “Getting a live account is getting one step closer to owning that account.”
Information Security’s e-help page advises users to be suspicious of emails that contain compressed attachments, such as .zip files, impersonal messages, and errors in grammar.
“The biggest thing to look for in terms of what is coming to you from the campus is asking ‘who is sending it?’ A lot of times you’ll see it’s not even from a CPP email address,” Drivdahl said.
If someone believes their account has been compromised, they should change all passwords immediately and report the incident to the IT Service desk, Gonzales said.
Gonzales said that the service desk will not take responsibility for personal devices but will offer advice and guidance.
Dirvham also advised users not to have the same passwords on multiple sites.
If remembering multiple passwords is difficult, he suggested using the same core password, with variations.
“Use the same root of the password and then add in the beginning or end something specific to that site to make it unique,” he said.
Gonzales’s top tip for the campus community regarding suspicious emails is to know one’s senders.
“It’s the same thing as if you were to go date somebody. You would not get into somebody’s car unless you knew them. You would not open an email unless you knew the sender,” she said. “When we’re online, we’re thinking it’s some abstract relationship, we think it doesn’t matter. It should matter. When in doubt, don’t open it.”
If a person from the campus community receives a suspicious-looking email or believes their account has been compromised, Gonzales and Drivdahl urged users to report it to the IT Service Desks located around campus, in the second floor of the library or in Room 100 in Building 1.
“There’s no harm in reporting it,” Gonzales said. “People think crime is different if it’s electronic, but crime is crime. If you saw something happening and you saw someone being hurt, I would want you to say something rather than not do anything. The same rules apply.”
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