How to Avoid Phishing Scams

Photo: sjlocke

I offer up advertising space on some of my websites. Most transactions are fairly simple, and there's no need to exchange personal information.

Recently I received an initial email, and after following up with my standard rates and services, things took a little bit of an unexpected turn. First, the woman emailing accepted my first offer, which rarely happens. I always offer a price higher than what I expect to settle for. By offering a high rate, I leave room for some negotiation that will result in a fair price. While it's not typical, that alone wasn't enough for me to get concerned. (See also: What's Holding You Back From Negotiating?)

The deal was for a one-time payment of $250, but along with the agreement was a request for me to fill out a W-9 (which requires my social security number and address) so they could send me a 1099-MISC at the end of the year. This wasn't an absurd request, and with companies based in the U.S., it's expected at times. What was strange was that the requirement typically kicks in after receiving $600 or more from a company, and since we were at less than half of that, it raised a question in my mind — could I be getting scammed?

After several emails back and forth, it became apparent that it was simply company policy and the company was a trustworthy one, so in this case, there was nothing to worry about.

While this woman was working for a legitimate business, though, phishing scams are a very real concern. In fact, phising was listed as one of the 2011 Dirty Dozen Tax Scams that the IRS puts out each year. According to Wikipedia, "phishing is a way of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity."

Here are some tips on how to avoid phishing scams.

Be suspicious of any requests for your personal information.

Banks and credit card companies will never ask you for your personal information (because they already have it), especially via email or phone, so if you receive something asking you to verify your identity, stay away!

Don't click on links from people you don't know or trust.

If the Prince of Africa tries to contact us, we all know to stay away. But the same thing should be true of an old friend you never thought you'd hear from again.

Don't be scared of emails.

If there really was an issue with your bank account or your home being foreclosed on, you would get something via snail mail. Even urgent messages likely won't be coming via the Internet, so be cautious.

Use truly secure websites.

Most of the time, if the URL begins with https instead of http, you are on a secure website. However, phishers are getting more sophisticated and can forge certificates in order to fool people, so also check the site's security certificate for validity. If it's not valid, stay far away!

Whenever someone requests your social security number or address, whether it's a part of a business or some other transaction, always think about why they want the details and be sure to confirm that they are who you think they are.

What other tips do you have for avoid phishing scams?

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Guest's picture

Sometimes these emails looks so legit that even the experts are fooled. They are very personal and customized to an individual. They can even have information about your employment etc. Just be careful.

Guest's picture

These types of schemes are also illegal. Be particularly careful of any mail that is automatically sorted out of your inbox.

Meg Favreau's picture

Yikes, that's a scary idea for freelancers!